With Patricia Carpenter, the new chairman, David Wyman, vice chairman from Dale district and three new members, Carrie Coyner from Burmuda, Tom Doland from Matoaca and Diane Smith from Clover Hill, the School Board has begun the process of getting to know one another as they explore funding avenues and educational opportunities.
This week Chesterfield County Schools Superintendent Marcus Newsome briefed media representatives on his proposed fiscal year 2013 budget.
During the first meeting of the New Year, Carrie Coyner, the young lawyer elected to represent Bermuda District, sat quietly, her face a portrait of intense concentration as Assistant Superintendant for Business and Finance David Myers led the Board through the complexities of Governor Bob McDonnell’s proposed biennial budget.
Meanwhile, catty-corner across the table, retired school psychiatrist Tom Doland - re-elected from the Matoaca District after a term off the Board - slouched comfortably over the color-coded spreadsheets. While each member raised an occasional question, newly-elected Chair Patricia Carpenter, and her vice-chair, David Wyman, asked most of the questions.
The budget news was far from good. After all, the School Board has no control over its revenues. While it must decide how to spend its budget, under Virginia law, school boards lack the power to tax. Thus, the School Board must depend upon local appropriations from the Board of Supervisors, state pupil funds allocated by the General Assembly, and a shrinking contribution from the Federal government to fund its programs.
The Governor’s budget, the main item on the Board’s work session agenda, contained two major items of bad news. Virginia’s level of basic, per pupil aid to the County will decrease.
At the same time, Chesterfield will be hit with a drastic increase in its mandated contribution to the long-under-funded Virginia Retirement System.
All told, while the County will get slightly more dollars, state-mandated spending will more than swallow the increase.
Newcomer Coyner explained the problem. “For example,” she notes, “we’re supposed to move to doing all SOL testing online. That means more computer labs, but not more money to pay for them. More demands, less money.”
While state aid tightens, the County’s contribution to education has been dropping for years. Doland remembers a time, during his previous term, when the School Board and Board of Supervisors had a “standing agreement”, whereby the schools could rely on a much larger percentage of County revenues than they do today.
According to Doland, “It represents a cut of $800 or $900 per pupil, and that’s having a drastic impact. Our schools are the economic engine of the county. If school quality - or the perception of school quality - drops, we will not be able to attract new businesses or new residents.”
Both Coyner and Doland believe that rebuilding a close working relationship with the Board of Supervisors will be the key. And both count on good relations with their respective Supervisors. Doland expresses great respect for new Matoaca Supervisor Steve Elswick, with whom he worked closely during his previous term. Elswick was then the County’s fire chief, while Doland was the School Board’s point man on school safety.
Coyner, likewise, has a strong relationship with Bermuda District Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle. Besides her frequent appearances before the Supervisors in land-use cases, Coyner shared many prominent supporters with Jaeckle in the recent election.
While Coyner and Doland negotiate the thickets of budget policy, they both express a determination to forge a close-knit team. Doland says he is a strong proponent of consensus-building, with a Board veteran’s awareness of what happens when individual members fail to communicate with their colleagues. Coyner hopes the new School Board will draw on the individual strengths of its members in forging a successful team.
This is not to say that the two members lack agendas of their own. Doland, who played a key role in developing the process for evaluating the superintendent, wants to develop similar metrics for measuring other educational leaders. Coyner supports a new high school in the southern part of Bermuda District.
She also advocates bolstering volunteer efforts in the schools, especially in times of budgetary constraints.
Having visited nearly all the schools in her district, Coyner speaks approvingly of their efforts to enlist community volunteers. The problem, she believes, is that the schools haven’t found a way of communicating specific needs and opportunities to the community.
One critical need is for adult males to serve as role models for boys, many of whom have no male exemplars in their homes. Since elementary faculties and staffs are overwhelmingly female, Coyner believes the mere presence of mature men would have particular impact at that level.
In addition to finding volunteers, Coyner hopes to partner with local organizations to provide service training courses for volunteers. “We’ve made it seem like education is difficult,” she observes. “It’s not difficult to help a child with basic reading and math skills. We need community volunteers now more than ever. I promise we won’t throw anyone into an AP calculus course.”