School Board members sat down with Loudoun’s state delegation today to outline legislative priorities they want the lawmakers to champion for them in Richmond.
Specifically, they asked for a change in state law that would free school systems up to charge students for bus rides to optional programs, like Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County and Loudoun’s Academy of Science.
The request stems from a difficult budget season two years ago when the board was faced with a decision to eliminate bus service for Loudoun students to Thomas Jefferson High School, a magnet school in Fairfax County. Parents packed the board room, asking that the board at least let them pay for the service as opposed to getting rid of it all together.
“We only have the option to either not provide it… or provide it and we bear the cost,” said board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn).
The board members got good news on this point. A bill to do just that is being drafted and co-sponsored by two of Loudoun’s state senators who rarely see eye to eye on issues, state Sens. Barbara A. Favola (D-31) and Richard M. “Dick” Black (R-13).
“So long as we are providing the basic transportation, when it comes to the extracurricular things, I don’t have any problem at all with granting the authority to charge for that,” Black said. “If the School Board decided, with public input, that that was the thing to do.”
Favola agreed. “You can’t have an all or nothing option. It just doesn’t work.”
The most discussed topic at the Legislative Breakfast was a request that all of the School Board members seemed in favor of: relaxing some of the state’s Standards of Quality staffing requirements. The SOQs mandate how many teachers and support staff schools must have at a minimum.
But as Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Cynthia B. Ambrose pointed out, every school has a different makeup and some principals would rather hire an additional math specialist or English Language Learner teacher than staff two librarian positions.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “What you needed to educate students well 25 years ago won’t cut it today.”
School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said that the current SOQ requirements inhibit innovation and sometimes restrict the best use of resources. She gave the example of a school that hires a third grade teacher who also happens to have extensive background in biochemistry, that could be put to use bolstering the school’s science program. “It would allow us that flexibility to staff our schools how we think best meets the needs of our students,” she said.
Favola and Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-32) voiced support for the idea, but said it is difficult to come up with an accountability framework that works for all of the school systems statewide. “It’s tough because we don’t want to erode the Standards of Quality,” Favola said.
As a good place to start, Greason suggested that educators and legislators change how they look at assessments. “We’ve got to do a better job of separating the concepts of school accountability and student growth measures,” he said.
School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles) brought up one example he called a success story in what’s possible when more decisions are left up to local boards. He pointed to the repeal of a state law a few years ago that limited the number of charter schools a school system could approve.
“I’m glad that was defeated because, as you know, Loudoun is leading Virginia in charter schools,” Morse said. Loudoun County has two charter schools, more than any other jurisdiction in the state. “Allowing divisions to succeed and giving them the incentive and ability to do it in their own way is something that would benefit all the schools.”
[See the adopted 2017 Legislative Program here.]