The Prince William County School Board delayed its final vote on the budget last night, after several teachers made impassioned pleas for a step increase in pay and against an increase in class sizes, and some of the board members expressed discomfort with voting for the budget as is.
A motion to pass the budget as is failed, with the vote tied among the eight board members.
"We're robbing Peter to pay Paul," school board member Betty Covington (Dumfries) said, defending her decision to vote against the budget. "We're making cuts from the teachers to give them a raise."
"In many ways, it's a no win situation," Chairman At-Large Milton Johns said, about the choice of which cuts to make in order to balance the budget. The budget as discussed last night was $1,201,938,057, but the final number will depend upon the board's own cuts, and the amount of state and county funds given to the schools.
The next meeting will be held Wednesday, March 28, and will not be a work session, but a full meeting focused solely on the budget.
"We may have to make individual motions on individual cuts unless we come up with a package that everyone likes," Johns said.
During the public hearing, teachers asked that different cuts be considered in order to grant teachers their step increase, which has been frozen for three years. The budget under discussion gave teachers a 2 percent raise, but not the full step increase.
"We've begged, we've pleaded, we've protested, we've cried, and some days we've really just felt like David fighting Goliath," Battlefield High School teacher Brandie Provenzano said.
"For the very first time, I feel like teachers are not respected here," Hylton High School teacher Jessica English said, who has taught for 11 years. "I feel like we're being disrespected. I teach because I feel that is what I am meant to do."
But with the lack of a step increase in the past few years, and future prospects of receiving a new step increase seeming increasingly dim, English isn't sure if she can afford to live here any more.
"I figured that a few years being underpaid would eventually evolve into a livable wage," she said. "It is a slap in the face to us professionally and personally."
English asked for reasonable cuts "that reflect the reality of the times."
"Do we really need full-sized buses for three or six students? Why must we pay for practice PSATs for multiple years for students?" she asked.
Sarah Watts, a teacher at Piney Branch Elementary School near Gainesville, described her multi-faceted role as a teacher.
"I am a teacher. I am also a nurse that fixes boo boos. I am also a referee that enforces the rules of the game. I am also a technician that makes sure all the toner is used in the printer. I am a data analyst. I am a lawyer who answers the parents' concerns when Billy forgot to mention that he was the one who threw the first punch," she said. "We know how to pinch pennies. We're also very good bankers who know how to budget our money well."
Bonnie Klakowicz, president of the Prince William Education Association, asked how PWCS could continue to offer a great education with current resources.
"A flat tax does not benefit our school system, our students, or our educators. Do we really want to go from great to good?" she asked. "This budget reflects a raise for your employees. We cannot continue to do without step increases."
During supervisors time, school board member Grant Lattin (Occoquan) said annual step increases have always been contingent upon available funds.
"It is true that for the past couple of years, we have not been able to provide a step increase," he said. "I had to look and see what a step increase was, because some school districts don't do step increases, some school districts have ten steps, some have annual steps, and this school district adopted a policy some years ago to design a step increase annually if the funding was available. There have been times when the funding is not available. There's nothing in the contract that says everybody gets a step increase."
School board member Denita Ramirez (Woodbridge) said that she refuses to consider cuts to PSATS and transportation to specialty programs.
"Any type of cut that will cause a disparity in our school division, I will not go along with," she said. "It is programs such as those that for me will be a sacred cow."
School board member Dr. Michael Otaigbe (Coles) said he was aware of the challenges that teachers faced, because he worked as a teacher.
"The challenge we have is just like what we have in our own household," he said. We have a certain amount of money, a salary, and we have competing needs. What we are faced with here is that 84 percent of our budget is personnel."
School board member Lisa Bell (Neabsco) said she couldn't support the budget as is.
"I'm looking at my district and my schools and my teachers, and I don't think we're doing enough for them," she said. "I don't support raising class sizes. Most of our middle schools are at max already. I still propose that we go back to the table and look at what we can find."
Covington also suggested going back to the drawing board.
"I would like to give our teachers a step," she said. "Now saying that, there's a difference between 'I would like to,' and 'Can we?'"
The step would cost $5 million extra to the schools.
"I am agonizing over this," Covington said. "As you all know, I was a teacher. Teachers are the backbone of this system. Without teachers, teaching doesn't get done."
To contact your school board member about your concerns with the budget, visit the school board page of the PWCS website.