No growth: School system defies county numbers

As this week's Hook cover story indicates, Albemarle County's booming growth shows no sign of stopping. With such fast-paced growth, the County school system must be bursting at the seams, right?


According to one school board member, the total gain for the Albemarle County school system over the past three years is... one student.

That's right, count 'em: one. And an expensive one at that. Since 1999, the school budget has climbed by about $16 million.

"You could call it the $16 million student," says board member Ken Boyd.

Boyd points out that the cost per student in Albemarle has risen nearly 20 percent from $6,886.25 in 1999-2000 to $8,171.14 per student in the 2002-'03 school year. And that doesn't even include the increase in debt to the County because of school expansion to prepare for growth.

"We've added 1,000 seats since 1999," he says, including the 600-seat Baker-Butler elementary school on Proffit Road. When the projected $8,804,207 "debt service" and the $10,854,221 self-sustaining funds (myriad dollars coming in from different areas including fees from parents for school lunches and after school care as well as federal dollars for adult education and the like) are taken into account, the cost per student rises further.

While Boyd's comparison is based on official County statistics, the math has changed slightly.

According to Al Reaser, director of building services for Albemarle County, as of September 6, the actual number of students had risen from the projected 12,188 to 12,225, meaning there is not one, but 38 more students than in 1999– and that number could rise even more by the end of the month.

As for the recent building boom, Reaser explains, "We were behind. Our goal has always been to catch up, so we had adequate seats."

Reaser points out that the new Baker-Butler school and the Brownsville addition are in the County's high growth districts to the north and west of Charlottesville. He says the increased costs come largely from "program changes," including the addition of computer labs, as well as orchestra programs in the middle schools.

"I can assure you," he says, "that if we don't need a school, it will be delayed."

So what's going on with the low numbers?

Boyd says the County had used the live birth rate as its benchmark for determining kindergarten enrollment, a system that always used to work.

"This is the first time enrollment has been less than the live birth rate five years ago," says. But why?

"There are a lot of theories," answers Boyd, "but we don't have the answer."

Here are the two most prominent theories: that private schools are taking many students, and that much of the County's growth is made up of retirees– who move to the area flush with cash but minus kids. Another factor, he explains, is that a growing number of parents are homeschooling particularly in the early grades.

So are all these extra seats just sitting empty? And what's so wrong with spending more on each student? Doesn't that mean the education is better?

To the first question, Boyd replies, "We have a tendency to gobble up these extra seats" by adding programs such as middle school orchestras programs that require additional seats and space for existing students: "We don't have enough information to make these decisions," Boyd says.

And as for whether the increased spending has improved Albemarle education overall, Boyd says he has concerns.

He explains that he formed a budget review committee two years ago with board members Gary Grant and Steve Koleszar, as well as two community members, to study how Albemarle County's system stacked up to four "peer systems"– those on a similar socioeconomic level.

It wasn't all rosy for Albemarle. For instance, Hanover County had a higher percentage of accredited schools, and yet there was a lower cost per student. But Boyd says before the results could be fully analyzed, the Board of Supervisors pulled the plug on his committee.

But school board member Diantha McKeel says despite the appearance of high spending, Albemarle County schools are simply doing what they must to maintain a top-notch system.

"Our costs are not necessarily proportional to the County's growth," McKeel says. She cites increases in the cost of health insurance for employees, as well as increases in salaries, special ed spending, transportation costs, technology costs, textbook replacements, and broader SOL testing, as well as the expenses associated with opening a new school.

"We have a wonderful system of accountability to the public," McKeel says. "You can't look at our budget and say our costs should be proportional to growth because there are too many variables things we do to be an ever-improving school system."

Boyd agrees that the goal of school board members is the same: to make a better school system. But he wants to be sure the board looks at "the global picture." He thinks more should be spent on teacher salaries to bring them up to the national average, and he wants to set the public straight on why education costs are increasing.

"We've let this myth be out there that growth is driving the rising cost of education," he says. "It's not."