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Fuzzy Math

Politicians are winning praise for slashing budgets. But cheaper schools are shortchanging Richmond's children — and the regional economy.

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MORNING DEW STILL clings to the front lawn grass at Manchester High School while the percussion section of the school marching band struts and steps in practice maneuvers. Chesterfield County Public Schools open in 10 days, and the drummers want to be ready.

But this year they'll be doing more with a lot less. Draconian budget cuts resulting from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression mean fewer trips to away football games for the band. Music theory and percussion classes have been dropped. And if an instrument is damaged, it will take longer to fix. “We've cut back on instrument repair,” says Athena Dufur, a band member and rising senior.

That's pretty much the situation all around the area and state — and it will affect a lot more than marching bands. Students and parents will see many cutbacks when a new school year gets under way Sept. 7.

Chesterfield County's school system cut 500 teaching and other positions during the past two years, saving $80 million. This year's $517 million budget leaves it with a total staff of about 8,000 who will have to accept pay cuts of 2 or 3 percent, depending on their jobs. Richmond Public Schools have seen general budget cuts of 15 percent across the board. Henrico County is in the best shape, thanks to its advantageous tax-base mix. It hasn't laid off any teachers but it has cut positions through attrition.

In all three systems, more pupils will be handled by fewer teachers in the classrooms, increasing class sizes after years of trying to pare them down.

Also feeling the pain are private schools as parents lose jobs and no longer can afford tuitions of more than $20,000 a year. Prestigious prep schools such as St. Christopher's and Collegiate report more applications for financial aid. At the 21-year-old Millwood School in Midlothian's Woodlake subdivision, enrollment has fallen by at least a third.

The crunch comes at a time when education standards in Virginia appear to be slipping. The Old Dominion had been proud of its pioneering efforts with the 12-year-old Standards of Learning competency tests, known as the SOLs, and of its highly-rated public universities. But a recent assessment of the tests by Harvard University gave the state a D+ grade. According to Kirsten Amundson, a former delegate from Fairfax, scores tallied by the National Assessment of Educational Progress of fourth- and eighth-graders' tests raise serious questions about how accurately the SOLs assess performance.

 

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Photo illustration by Jeff Bland/Photo by Aaron-H.

The woes come while education in general seems to be approaching a crossroads. Some question whether standards really will do much to prepare students and their thinking and skill sets for future jobs that could be forever lost after the bad recession. SOLs might be suited for the kind of regimented work demanded by outdated big corporations while more entrepreneurial creativity may be more of a key to success. Virginia's pupils also will be forced to seek jobs with companies active in increasingly global operations and markets. They'll face tremendous pressure from well-taught people from China, India and Russia.

Politics also plays a keen role. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and the General Assembly have made big cuts in state aid to public education to help balance the state budget, which had suffered a $1.8 billion deficit. Newcomer McDonnell, a Republican, is drawing positive national press by claiming that he's turned the deficit into a $400-million surplus.

But he's done so by taking the budget ax to classrooms, resulting in fewer teachers and study choices for pupils. The Virginia Education Association reports that for the 2010-'12 state budget, $1.3 billion in education funding for grades K-12 has been cut. Compared with the 2008-'09 period, spending has dropped from $5,300 per pupil to $4,552 per pupil.

Federal money is available, but McDonnell has shunned President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program that awarded millions of dollars in educational aid to participating states such as Massachusetts and North Carolina. Obama's stimulus program has saved some jobs, notably in Chesterfield, but the impacts are temporary.

“We are very concerned about what the impact will be,” Kitty Boinott, head of the Virginia Education Association, says about the deteriorating situation. “We are anticipating larger class sizes and wonder if having larger classes will have a long-term impact.” State cuts have also been disproportional, hitting more rural and poorer areas such as Southwest and Southside Virginia much harder than richer areas such as Fairfax and Henrico counties that don't need as much state money. And it's anyone's guess how long the woes will last.


THE REGIONAL PUBLIC school systems have been slammed by a trio of woes. The recession and sluggish recovery have cut revenues to state and local budgets from income taxes, sales receipts and other sources. The concurrent financial crisis caused by profligate subprime mortgage lending has lowered property assessments, resulting in many property owners paying out less in taxes. They pay nothing if their homes are in foreclosure, as about 25 percent of properties sold this summer in Richmond were. And because the Richmond area has been the hardest hit among the state's metropolitan areas, thousands of jobs lost at out-of-business companies such as Circuit City or LandAmerica Financial Group probably won't come back at all.

In Richmond city schools, pupils will face larger classes, fewer field trips, fewer extracurricular programs and fewer teachers. Angela Dewes, head of the Richmond Education Association, says that departments in the system face 15-percent cuts and staff reductions among teachers and support staff. “Teachers will have to buy materials [for classes] out of their own pockets” — but, she adds, “The kids aren't going to suffer.”

They will have to live with less, however. Trips to Washington may be out and the senior trip “may be no more” unless school groups hold independent fundraisers. Equipment for athletic programs will see a 20-percent cut and programs such as Drug Free Schools will end. Teacher raises are a thing of the past.

Henrico County, by contrast, enjoys an advantageous position despite making some cuts. The county has the best tax-base mix in the region, which includes enough stores, commercial offices and industry to offset money-draining and service-demanding residential developments. Unlike Chesterfield, instead of playing catch-up with suburban sprawl allowed by permissive politicians, Henrico has taken a more studied approach.

 

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Photo illustration by Jeff Bland/Photo by Aaron-H.

So has its school system, which has a reputation for being careful with its spending. Its $401.4 million school budget salvaged $21 million after eliminating 123 positions through attrition. “We didn't see any staff cuts and we have no changes in academic curricula,” says Mychael Dickerson, executive director of communications and community outreach for the school system. And while the county cut positions, it was able to hire 200 new teachers for this school year.

The not-so-good news is that the county typically hires 500 to 600 new teachers for its 69 schools in any given year. And, to save jobs, class sizes are going to get larger, adding on average about a 0.75-percent increase in the student-teacher ratio, or about one or two extra students per class. Cuts also were made in travel and printing.

Of all the school systems, Chesterfield is being hit the worst. The county is more of a bedroom community than Henrico and can't boast of the same mix of tax-revenue sources. For much of the past two decades Chesterfield's schools have been scrambling to keep up with fast-paced residential growth. While houses popped up like mushrooms, pupils were herded into trailers because existing schools were too crowded.

Chesterfield's school system kept up often with double-digit spending increases to build enough classrooms, raise the county's SOL scores and raise teacher pay to compete with Henrico and Richmond. Money flowed in from the fast development, so little thought was given to a possible downturn.

Consequently, Chesterfield got badly hammered when the subprime mortgage crisis quickly turned off the lending spigot. Huge new subdivisions such as Magnolia Green and Branner Station stopped dead in their tracks. The county didn't have much industry or commercial real estate to fall back on.

To compensate, two years ago county schools went on a crash course, cutting spending. Some 500 teacher positions were eliminated. In April 150 teachers were told they would be laid off, although the county was later able to save 50 of those jobs. Surviving principals and teachers were forced to take a 2-percent pay cut while other administrators absorbed 3-percent pay cuts.

Besides cutting back on such programs as repairing damaged band instruments, academic courses were affected. “Course selections have changed,” says Shawn Smith, a school spokesman.


A LURKING BUT so-far unaddressed concern is how such major cuts will affect the area and state's ability to prepare its children for adulthood and the labor force. Virginia's benchmark is the SOL system started in 1998 that tests English and math, science and history in the third and eighth grades; science and history in grades three, five and eight. The plan was to use SOLs as a yardstick and hold schools accountable because the scores are used by the state to grant accreditation.

At first, only 2 percent of the state's schools met accreditation standards, but that increased to 84 percent by 2004. In 2002, the SOL scores were linked to President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program, which set up Adequate Yearly Progress standards that also measure progress.

The most recent of those assessments showed that the state public school system was slipping. Only 40 percent of the 1,836 schools earned accountability ratings. The poor performance was repeated locally. In Richmond, some 35 out of 47 schools met federal standards in 2008-2009 but only 28 out of 45 schools did last year. Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover Schools likewise showed declines.

 

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Photo illustration by Jeff Bland/Photo by Aaron-H.

Other data likewise suggests problems. SOL scores had shown that 89 percent of fourth-graders passed the test, but when tested against the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 38 percent passed. Among eighth-graders, 87 percent of the state's public school students passed the reading SOL test but only 36 percent were deemed proficient by a similar NAEP test.

What to do about improving scores presents its own conundrums. Critics say that proficiency tests lead educators to teach the test, not the subject. Some say that better teaching, not more money, is what really makes a difference in classrooms.

Curiously, Virginia has turned away financial help. On Aug. 23, Obama's Race to the Top program announced that 13 million pupils and one million educators in nine states and the District of Columbia would receive $3.4 billion for education, including Old Dominion neighbors North Carolina and Maryland.

McDonnell had planned to apply for $350 million in federal funding just before he took office, but dropped the plan in May. McDonnell insists Obama's program imposed unacceptable federal proficiency standards, and that the plan would have forced Virginia to remake its SOLs. The state “would have to lower our standards” to receive Obama's money, McDonnell said. Boinott of the Virginia Education Association agrees with McDonnell.

Some temporary relief had been given by Obama's stimulus program, which supplied about $1.5 billion to the state for education. School systems spent the money in different ways. Henrico, fearing that the funds would be available once, went for brick and mortar projects and used some $14 million to plan a new high school and add classrooms at Lakeside, Tuckahoe and Dumbarton elementary schools. Tax-strapped Chesterfield used its funds to plug its budget and spent about $20 million to save 275 education jobs last year.

All schools, public and private, are being so badly hammered by financial woes that there's little time to look at longer-term issues. But there are clear signs that far-reaching problems are present. Among them are the state's declining educational performance and whether the SOLs are still the right way to go to train the state's future work force.

While local school boards and state politicians practice the new frugality, they could be putting Virginia's school children at great risk.

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