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This Week's Topic: Prioritizing Public Schools

It seems there's one thing everyone can agree on: Chesterfield County's schools are underfunded. The only question is why and what is going to be done about it? While the Board of Supervisors continue to insist there is no crisis in the schools, the citizens I meet beg to differ. Chesterfield has schools with attendance as much as 30% over capacity, temporary trailers in parking lots to handle the overflow, and students with learning disabilities who can’t get necessary testing and accommodations. Every new school year begins the same way: students sitting on the floors of buses because no one paid close enough attention to number of new dwellings in the pipeline. No one with children in the schools would suggest there is not a problem, and Chesterfield should be doing better.


More than once, I have listened to Chesterfield Supervisors claim there is no crisis and then (in typical fashion) proceed with their standard excuses: there is nothing we can do, and it is all someone else’s fault. Now, the latest excuse, is that it is the state’s fault. Well, I have news for the Supervisors: we all pay state taxes too, so no matter where the money comes from, the taxpayers pay the bill.


The Supervisors need to step up and be part of the solution. Must every zoning case be approved for fear of being sued? Or might the County stand up and stick to their own Comprehensive Plan? The Comp Plan is the basis for all longterm planning, including schools. Yes, much of the current housing was approved years ago, so why is the county not prepared? And why have they failed to even identify sites for much-needed new schools?


It's true that this state does not fund the schools the same as other states (and hasn’t for years), but what does Chesterfield do in response? They lower local spending. Of course, the County has technically spent more dollars each year on schools--inflation is real, and the number of new students is growing exponentially due to ever more dense housing. In FY22, Chesterfield spent $.44 of every taxpayer dollar on education, and the current FY24 budget only plans to spend $.41 of every taxpayer dollar. Chesterfield is actually paying less when the schools need it the most! The FY24 budget is nearly $1B dollars, so that 3% ($30M) is not going to schools. In other words, Chesterfield has money but misplaced priorities. They could stop building soccer fields and giving tax breaks to developers. They could stop spending millions on pet projects that don't have return-on-investment data. They could start prioritizing the students of Chesterfield County instead.


First, they could get their priorities straight and revisit the budget to review non-essential spending and get school funding back to FY22 levels or higher.


Second, they could stop using schools and our children as pawns. The West MS and HS were delayed a year as leverage for approving the Upper Magnolia Green Megasite. The county has already reneged on the high school site, leading to even more costs and delays. The bond referendum for schools was tied to unpopular or lower-priority programs, putting much needed school-funding at risk and reducing borrowing capacity for schools.


Third, they could spend money wisely by prioritizing classrooms and the teachers who fill them. They need to move away from trailers in parking lots and focus on building schools with room to grow. They need to spend excess funds breaking ground on new schools instead of investing in turf fields. Finally, they could stop approving exceptions to the comprehensive plan and allow the schools time to catch up. Everyone knows that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging!


Thanks to the taxpayers and our teachers, Chesterfield has good schools. Chesterfield could have the best schools if we elected leaders willing to make them a priority. The future of Chesterfield depends on it.

God bless America, the Commonwealth of Virginia, Chesterfield County, and the good people of Matoaca!


-Chip

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