Textbooks or turf fields? School board weighs funding priorities

Coming up with a list of funding priorities posed a divisive task for Loudoun County (VA) School Board members this week.

The 79,000-student school system may get a portion of county funds left over from fiscal year 2016 should the county Board of Supervisors agree to share some of its fund balance.

As the School Board began to draft its funding wish list at tonight’s meeting, the agenda item turned into a debate among board members over whether replacing outdated textbooks or retrofitting Heritage High School with an artificial turf field should take precedence.

The priorities recommended by senior staff members were, in order: 60 new buses ($7.2 million); technology infrastructure ($2.05 million), including replacing 60 aging servers; bus wash equipment ($200,000); synthetic turf at Heritage ($1.9 million); and the installation of school tracks at 19 schools ($12.775 million). Other suggestions for the money that were not prioritized included weight rooms at Dominion, Heritage and Potomac Falls high schools; press boxes at five high schools; and artificial turf at the only other high schools still with natural grass fields, Briar Woods, Dominion and Freedom.

But board members had just heard that there is a dire need for new textbooks, especially for math and Advanced Placement courses. “We have old textbooks. I don’t think math textbooks have been adopted since 2006 or 2005 and some standards are changed,” Cynthia Ambrose, assistant superintendent of instruction, said as she updated the board on students’ standardized tests pass rates earlier in the evening.

Speaking to the artificial turf field at Heritage, ranked fourth on the funding wish list, School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) said, “That $2 million could refresh our textbooks. … I just can’t vote for practice fields and press boxes before I vote for textbooks.”

He also noted that the board is still waiting for answers on whether the fields’ crumb rubber infill is harmful to young athletes. The board has continued to press forward with crumb rubber, but has agreed to keep tabs on ongoing national studies on possible health risks of long-term exposure to the material.

Debbie Rose (Algonkian) spoke in favor of keeping a field for Heritage as a top priority, and suggested that the board plan to pay for a new field at one high school each year until all of the county’s high schools have synthetic grass.

“Most of you guys all have schools with synthetic turf. In my district, when we have inclement weather, we have to fight with other athletic directors to get time on their fields,” she said. “This is a really big deal for my community. It’s not a little frivolous thing.”

Jeff Morse (Dulles) and Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) agreed. “I share Ms. Rose’s woes,” Sheridan said. “There’s a feeling of inequity [among school communities] and that it’s not fair, so we absolutely do have to have a plan in place.”

Board members who said updating the athletic fields is important agreed that updating textbooks is also vital, but could be made a priority in the fiscal year 2018 operating budget.

Leigh Burden, assistant superintendent of financial services, cautioned the board that textbooks likely would not qualify for county fund balance, which is generally earmarked for non-reoccurring capital costs. “I think textbooks would be considered a consumable item and wouldn’t be appropriate for fund balance,” she said. But, she added, if other items are funded, such as new buses, which will leave room in the school system’s operating budget next fiscal year.

Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said that the textbooks should certainly be in the running. “I would argue emphatically that textbooks are not a consumable item,” she said. “Some of our textbooks are older than our buses.”

Superintendent Eric Williams told board members he would talk to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet about how supervisors would view a request for leftover funds to buy textbooks.

The School Board is scheduled to adopt a final list of funding priorities at its Oct. 25 meeting. It will then be sent to the supervisors as a formal request.-Danielle Nadler,