At 10:24 p.m. Thursday, at the end of the third Fauquier County School Board work session on next year's budget, incoming member Gary A. Maloche posed a question to his colleagues as they rose wearily from their chairs in the vast and empty Fauquier High School cafeteria:
"Has this been done before?" Maloche asked.
Before the new board takes office next month, members and members-elect have spent as many as 12 hours together poring over the budget's 62 pages, with an estimated 1,900 line items, that detail Superintendent Dallas M. Johnson's proposed $72.7 million budget for the 2000-01 school year.
John E. Williams (Center District) provided Maloche's answer.
"It hasn't been done since I've been here"--since July 1994--"though we've asked for it in this detail before," Williams said. "I feel like we're finally doing our job now."
After a year in which the relationship between the School Board and Board of Supervisors suffered a meltdown, and when two incumbent School Board members, including the chairman, were defeated in the November elections, it is becoming clear that next year's board is eager to showcase its changes.
One example is the fine-toothed combing of next year's budget. Another is public displays of camaraderie such as those that occurred Thursday.
Time will tell whether this approach by the three new members and two remaining incumbents succeeds in repairing the damage from the feud with the supervisors and addressing some major problems in a school system still struggling with the Virginia Standards of Learning tests and where a sizable number of children are taught in trailers.
Interviewed after the public hearing portion of the meeting, the ball-capped Johnson said questions about the turbulence of a few months ago--when supervisors withheld a portion of the school budget and terminated a power-sharing agreement with the School Board--amounted to unnecessary dwelling.
"It's like when I'm driving on [Interstate] 95, and you ask me to look in the rearview mirror," he said. "That's past."
What also is past is Johnson's honeymoon period. Last year was his first budget, and the board tended to defer to his requests. That may not be the case in the upcoming year, if Thursday's discussion of his $75,668 pilot preschool proposal was any indication. The money would be used to create a class of 20 to 25 at-risk 4-year-olds.
"Preschool? Bye-bye," said Broni Lambelet (Marshall District), who took office last month. She succeeded Larry Czarda, an interim appointee who gave up the seat to her immediately after the November elections.
"I agree. I think you're opening a Pandora's box" with preschool, said William G. Downey IV, who defeated board Chairman Mary Charles Ashby (Scott District). Maloche, who defeated longtime Fauquier political veteran Alice Jane Childs, nodded in assent.
The two incumbents who will return to the board, Williams and Ernest L. Gray Jr. (Lee District), seemed less eager than their new counterparts to cut new initiatives and pare down existing programs. Still, there seemed to be consensus on cutting at least $300,000 of the new initiatives proposed by Johnson.
The one thing members of next year's board agreed on Thursday was an increase in teacher's salaries. J. Michael Wine, the personnel director for the schools, compiled information that showed that 20 teachers left this year to take higher-paying jobs in other systems.
With tremendous growth in Loudoun and Prince William counties, Wine said in an interview, the pressure for local teachers "is only going to get worse." Wine said that because the teacher's retirement package is based on their last three years of pay, many veteran teachers in the Fauquier system are considering moves to more generous systems to finish out their careers.
To counter those defections, Johnson has proposed a 4.5 percent increase in salary for all staff, which would cost $2.48 million and constitutes most of the $3.47 million in new initiatives he recommended.
The board is scheduled to meet again tomorrow for its final work session on the budget, which is due to be submitted to the Board of Supervisors early in the new year. But supervisors Chairman Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott) has recommended extending the submission deadline so that the new members could get acclimated.
Next year's joint work sessions will include all the members of both boards, rather than two representatives from each. Weeks called last year's arrangement a "mistake, for which I assume responsibility."
Earlier Thursday evening, the members of the outgoing board presided over what Ashby declared "the shortest public hearing held for a budget in Fauquier County history." At least there was consensus among the speakers--uh, speaker.
Deborah Dotson, 41, a Midland mother of three, PTO volunteer and part-time worker at the county's teacher resource center, took about four minutes to ask the board to pay teachers more, segregate boys from girls in the early grades and require school uniforms.