Prince William School Board delays action on teacher funds

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Prince William County School Board decided Wednesday to take no action on a request made by the school system's administration to approve the use of new federal aid to states dedicated to saving and creating education jobs.

After almost two hours of discussion, board members were divided on whether to accept, at this time, the $15 million the school system is expected to get as part of the $10 billion federal Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act passed last month. The state is expected to receive $250 million from the bill but, as of late last week, had yet to file its application to receive the funding and determine how it would be spread across the state.

Some School Board members said they were hesitant to move forward in part because of action taken by the Board of County Supervisors last month and because the funding amount the county will get is not finalized. Supervisors, who have the ultimate say on whether the county accepts the funding, voted Aug. 24 not to budget and appropriate the funding now and to readdress it during the fiscal 2012 budget process. Many School Board members criticized the supervisors' action.

"I found it almost irrational for them to say they'd take no action before they had a chance to be briefed by the School Board," said School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large). "I support us being able to hire these teachers as soon as possible . . . but I am uncomfortable asking them to budget and appropriate something we don't know what it is yet. . . . If we can go back with some specifics, I think we have a much stronger foundation to get that money."

Schools officials said the stimulus funding must be used for staff working at the school level. It can be used to recall people laid off, retain employees or hire new staff members. Prince William is expected to qualify for enough money to hire an additional 180 teachers.

At their meeting, supervisors had criticized School Superintendent Steven L. Walts for planning and announcing a multimillion-dollar spending decision without consulting them. But Walts told the School Board that although the school system has been recruiting and considering modified contracts, nobody has been offered one or hired. Walts said the county is competing with localities nationwide and wanted to be able to hire "the best and the brightest" and create little disruption for students.

"Any superintendent is going to try and maximize resources . . . and when you have a school division of this size, there is a huge gear-up that has to take place to vet people," Walts said. "What we tried to do is act with a sense of urgency. . . . I believe we did what was appropriate to begin to get ready if these funds became available."

Supervisors voted against the funding last month over concerns the schools were using one-time funding for something that would become an ongoing cost.

"I applaud our superintendent for being ready," said School Board member Denita S. Ramirez (Woodbridge). "I would have been, I think, more appalled if you didn't know your own budget . . . and didn't know how the money would be spent. . . . This is not politics for us; this is about funding for children."

Dave Cline, associate superintendent for finance and support services, said residents would effectively be paying for the aid through their federal taxes even if the county does not accept the money. The additional teachers would help maintain Advanced Placement classes, meet adequate yearly progress standards and replace the 188 teachers the school lost last year through attrition, schools officials said.

"I have visited many schools and talked to many educators, and everyone is shocked, angry and saddened by the action of the board of supervisors," Bonnie Klakowicz, president of the Prince William Education Association, told the School Board on Wednesday. "Parents, teachers and other individuals . . . did not have the proper opportunity to voice their support for the school system's intent to hire 180 teachers."

The funding would reduce class sizes and help leverage additional funding from Virginia's class-size reduction grants. Schools officials said if they could get 20 additional teachers this year, they could reduce class sizes at seven schools and obtain $928,000 from the state the system otherwise won't receive. Class sizes in Prince William are already pushing the state maximums, Cline said.

The new positions, schools officials said, could be absorbed in the future because the school system hires, on average, 561 teachers a year. Schools officials are also opening three new schools in fall 2011. Cline said that only "something dramatic" for schools not to keep the teachers after the federal funding runs out.

School Board members said they plan to readdress the funding at their Sept. 15 meeting in hopes that more information will be available from the state by then. Cline said the earliest a teacher hired with the funding could be in the classroom is November.

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