Candland: With Overcrowded Classrooms Common, School Pool Needs Referendum
– August 18, 2013 7:25 am
A few months before I was born, my first cousin Ricky drowned while out on the Potomac River. He was a teenager who grew up on the river and knew how to swim, but the currents were too much for him and his friends to handle when their boat overturned.
As you can imagine, that tragedy significantly affected my family and how we viewed the importance of learning to swim. Everyone would benefit from learning the basics on how to swim – but who should teach them and should we implement it as a curriculum in our schools?
As a county, we are now at the crossroads. Our School Board has proposed a plan that would build a pool at the new high school, with the concept of building a pool in all future high schools.
The pool in the planned high school would cost approximately $12 million to build, while the annual operating costs are estimated around $800,000 each year. School Board staff have projected that much of this maintenance cost can be recouped each year through user fees, activities, and classes, although the model for accomplishing this is unclear at this point.
The School Board is also investigating incorporating swim lessons into the curriculum of our public schools – requiring each child to learn how to swim during school hours, which would either mean all students would be bused to different locations during the school day or only a few fortunate kids located at the high school with the pool would get lessons. Either way, it will become a logistical challenge.
I believe that the intentions of the members of the School Board who have endorsed this plan are good. They want kids to learn how to swim so the kids will be safe. But we have seen many times the good intentions of government balloon out of control in costs and scope.
Prince William County Schools currently have the highest average classrooms size in Virginia. Let me underscore that point – out of all the counties in the Commonwealth, we have the highest average classroom sizes. Last year, my daughter who was in middle school attended her lunchtime at 10:15 a.m. due to the huge number of kids attending her school. She would come home from school in the afternoon starving because she hadn’t eaten in several hours.
Classroom overcrowding contributes significantly to the lagging performance of our students as compared to surrounding jurisdictions with similar demographics, but smaller classrooms.
With my wife being a former Prince William County School teacher, I’ve had many conversations with her about the effects of over-crowded classrooms. She talked about the frustration she saw in the teachers and students as the weight of the over-sized classrooms made effective instruction more difficult. Her heart broke as she saw children “fall through the cracks” as teachers tried their best to teach a huge diverse group of students.
During this last budget season, I asked School Board Chairman Johns if they were spending any money in their budget to address this issue. I was extremely disappointed when the answer came back that they had no plan in place to address our classroom sizes because they didn’t have the money to do so.
In addition to our over-crowded classrooms, our county struggles to pay our teachers a competitive wage compared to surrounding localities. Each year, we lose some of our best and brightest to other school districts as they are able to pay higher salaries. This exodus of school teachers has to stop.
As a member of the Board of County Supervisors, I have been committed to keeping our tax burden low while people in this county still recover from the effects of the Great Recession and Sequestration. This fiscally conservative approach requires that we prioritize taxpayers’ money and focus on core government responsibilities – transportation, public safety, education, and quality of life services.
I believe that a new pool would be a tremendous resource for our county. But I do not believe that the cost of this pool should be shouldered by the school district. Every penny that comes into the school system should go to teaching our kids the skills they need to excel in the increasingly competitive global economy.
My daughter swims competitively year round. In the fall, we will begin leaving our house at 4:30 a.m. to attend her 5 a.m. practice. I want her to have every opportunity to achieve her goals in swimming. But those goals cannot come at the price of her education. Most likely, her ability to succeed in life won’t come from how fast she can swim, but by the skills and lessons she learns sitting in her elementary, middle school and high school classrooms.
So what is the solution?
I believe we need to take this issue to the voters. We need to vote on a referendum that asks the question on whether or not the citizens of the County want new pool facilities. That referendum should detail the costs for adding a new set of pool or pools and exactly what the debt obligation will be in increased taxes. With an investment of this size, we need the voters to provide their input. If the voters approve the referendum, then it becomes the responsibility of the Board of Supervisors to decide how to build the pool under the County Parks and Recreation Department.
Our school system gets 57.23% of the county revenues and we need to ensure that every dollar goes to teaching our children the intellectual skills they need to excel when they leave school. We need to reduce our classroom sizes, pay our teachers more, increase our test scores, and allow our children to eat lunch at a reasonable hour.
I look forward to having this debate as a Supervisor, as a dad of a year round swimmer, and as a father of four children who will be attending Prince William County Schools this year.