After two years of productive, yet often contentious, collaboration the tenure of the 2008 – 2011 Clarke County School Board has come to a close. Over the past two years its members, Janet Alger (Russell), Robina Bouffault (White Post), Barbara Lee (Millwood), Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh) and Jennifer Welliver (Berryville) accomplished one of the primary goals that voters had asked of them; construction of a new high school.
But while the outgoing School Board found a way to agree on most of the details related to the new school’s construction, a one-time bonus for school employees in the face of opposition from the Board of Supervisors as well as the establishment of a cost-saving joint maintenance agreement with the County, other issues spawned heated and public disagreement.
Declining student test scores, school management and policy disagreements, questions related to construction of the Mosby Avenue extension as well as the School Board’s relationship with the Clarke County Education Foundation proved to be both difficult and divisive issues.
Whether you are a supporter or a detractor of the outgoing School Board’s twice elected chairman Robina Bouffault (White Post), and there are many on both sides of the fence, Bouffault has arguably been the Board’s most active and outspoken member and will leave her signature on Clarke County education for years to come.
“My motivation for running was to make sure new high school capacity was built” Bouffault said at the start of 2012 and no longer as a School Board member. “Student capacity issues had been worsening yearly, with no valid solution in sight. It had also become a highly divisive matter for the entire community for too many years, and a lot of taxpayer money had been wasted. I felt that my long experience in the construction industry could help resolve the apparent impasse.”
Bouffault, who was the School Board’s authorized contract agent managing the new high school contract, says that her construction and business experience ultimately paid off well for County taxpayers. Based on school construction results that assertion is hard to disagree with.
“The new high school construction is continuing on schedule” Bouffault said. “The 162,000 square foot building is looking good and is fast nearing completion. The initial “substantial completion” date is January 23rd – only 3 weeks away. The project is approximately $600,000 under budget at this point. Any extra money remaining will be rolled over into the other school renovation projects.”
Bouffault had only praise for construction team working on the building.
“Shockey have been fabulous to work with” Bouffault said. “They are true professionals.”
Bouffault is clearly proud of the soon-to-be-completed school building and pointed out that once the final “punch list” of construction items has been addressed and the School Board takes possession of the building on March 23rd, the benefits to students will extend well beyond the walls of the new building.
“When Shockey hands over the keys for the building to the School Board, we will then be able proceed to equipment installation including the smart boards, a full camera security system, a complete phone network and subsequent furniture installation” Bouffault said. “We can then move from the current high school just as soon as the students are gone in June. The new school should be more than ready for its first year to start in August, 2012. This will be an exciting time for our students and for all of us.”
Bouffault said that the official ribbon-cutting ceremony – scheduled for Saturday, April 28th , 2012 at 11:00 AM with a subsequent building tour of the building – will mark a wonderful accomplishment for the community and urged the public to attend.
“Put it on your calendars!” Bouffault said.
But while the new school nears completion, the accompanying construction of the extension of Mosby Avenue and a round-about on Main Street are just beginning.
“This VDOT – Town – County project should not be forgotten, of course” Bouffault said. “The School Board has given a total of between 8 and 9 acres of school land in easements for this project. VDOT is due to go out for bid this month [January], and has scheduled a Notice to Proceed to the winning bidder for May, 2012. The schedule shows that they will start with the Westwood/Main Street intersection round-about in four phases, to allow traffic to continue through the intersection during construction, although limited, and they have included the build-out of the new Mosby Avenue from the intersection to the back entrance of the new high school before bad weather sets in. The final portion of the new Mosby Avenue -from the back entrance of the new high school to the end of the existing Mosby – will be done the following spring, if it cannot be completed prior to the winter.”
Bouffault said that after much discussion the entrances to the new high school will include the main entrance – from the existing Mosby Avenue at the end of Battlefield Estates – a “buses only” entrance from Main Street and a “back entrance from the ‘new’ Mosby Avenue approximately 600 feet from the Westwood/Main street intersection.
But although the new school will be a well-recognized symbol of the School Board’s accomplishments, Bouffault said that there are other items that she is also proud of.
“The new school did take up quite a bit of time, however I was also very pleased at the establishment of the highly successful joint maintenance agreement with the county, with county Maintenance Director Bobby Levi doing a fabulous job of making all of our schools look pristine all of the time in a very cost efficient manner” Bouffault said. “It is a very good example of what can be done when the schools and county work together. I would also like to say that we had finalized getting a really good building automation system in place, however, although advanced, that project is still in the works, and hopefully the new board will bring it to fruition.”
Despite the construction success of the new school, Bouffault said that there are other areas where she would have liked to have seen more progress.
“There are two areas where I would have liked to have accomplished more” Bouffault said. “First of all, academic performance has sadly declined over the last three years for a number of reasons. Secondly, I am disappointed that we were not able to advance with the other school renovations that the Board had initiated in 2010 – that project has been slowed, which could result in trailers being around for one or more years.”
Financially, Bouffault sees a mixed horizon for Clarke County Public Schools with increases in Virginia education funding but subsequent decreases from federal funding sources.
“Budgets for the past few years have been tight, both for the county and for the schools” Bouffault said. ”The Clarke rumor mill – ever active – talks of school operating budgets having been substantially cut by over $2 million serious school employee ‘firings’. These rumors are happily not accurate at all.” To the contrary,
Bouffault says, in spite of a substantial decrease in the Clarke County student population, overall operational funding has stayed essentially flat with local tax funding picking up the state and federal shortfalls.
“From FY07 to the present, there has been an overall decrease of some 159 students – a -7.2% decline – which has resulted in an almost $500,000 yearly decrease in the state’s funding on a per-pupil basis” Bouffault said. “In spite of this, funding for school operations has slightly risen by 1.1% since FY07. There have been no cuts in the schools operational funding, and certainly not any $2 million.”
Bouffault challenges the notion of $2 million in school budget over the last several years that has been alleged by school officials.
“Local funding has been making up the federal and state funding deficiencies, to the tune of a 28.7% increase over that same period of time” Bouffault said. Further, Bouffault argues that since 2009, in Clarke there has been no decrease in the overall number of school employees and that employee FTEs (full-time equivalents) have remained fairly constant at 320 FTEs in spite of the 7.2% student decrease.
“The number of K-12 licensed teachers in FY07 was 123.81 FTEs and in FY12, it is currently 122.50 FTEs” Bouffault pointed out.” However, this number does not include the various SPED teachers, counselors, etc. that can vary from year to year depending upon the composition of the pupil populations.”
From a budgetary perspective, Bouffault says that she sees some good news for Clarke County in this year’s Virginia education budget, stemming primarily from a more favorable “composite index” score which is used to compute the state contribution to individual counties based on the locality’s ability to fund local education.
“A decrease in our county’s composite index score, 0.4892 down from 0.5346 – an 8.5% decrease due to a decrease in the county’s real estate values and individuals revenues caused by the poor economy – means that we are poorer, and need a higher percentage of state funding” Bouffault explained. “The composite index decline has resulted in a state school operational funding increase of $1,018,690, a great boon for our tiny county.”
But Bouffault also warned that the increase in funding from the composite index adjustment will be partially offset by a federal funding decrease of $376,410 with the termination of the JOBS stimulus funding from last year.
“But, we’re still ahead of the game, right?” Bouffault rhetorically asked. “Well, I’m not so sure. What the state giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.”
Bouffault said that this year’s school budget will also shoulder large increases in the cost of school employee benefits with the Virginia Retirement System costs – health insurance and life insurance costs – increasing dramatically.
“The exact figures have yet to be announced by the Virginia Assembly” Bouffault said. “These should be known quite shortly however, by the end of this month. I have no doubt it will be the subject of much political snarling down in Richmond, and subsequently in every county in the Commonwealth.”
With a mixed budget picture and a new school both on the 2012 education horizon, Bouffault offered some parting advice for the newly elected School Board team;
“The incoming board should focus on improving student performance so that the schools can shine in the top ten of the Academic Wachovia Cup, just as they do in the Athletic Wachovia Cup” Bouffault said. “I would also suggest that the board choose a qualified SB representative to oversee the renovations, to expedite them and get the students completely out of trailers as soon as possible.”
Over her four years in office, Bouffault’s outspoken positions on often controversial topics have, at times, made her the lightning rod for opposing viewpoints. Even so, Bouffault says that the she is pleased to have had the opportunity to serve the Clarke County community.
“It’s been a very gratifying and exciting four years, and I am delighted to have been able to help with getting our new CCHS built. It was definitely worth the effort.”
Asked if she may have future political ambitions Bouffault replied:
“There is nothing foreseen at this time.”