Stafford Supervisors Approve Increased Funding for School Major Maintenance

Chris Freeman addresses the Stafford Board of Supervisors on April 2.

by Adele Uphaus

Stafford supervisors on Tuesday approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that will provide about $15 million to the school division for critical systems maintenance and repair, replacement, and renovation, or “3R” projects.

This funding is in addition to $13 million in new money for the school division’s operating fund, which will provide raises to support staff, among other investments.

Multiple speakers during public comments begged supervisors to help the school division address its maintenance needs, especially after the announcement last week that a pressure relief valve in a boiler at Rodney Thompson Middle School failed, causing a pipe to burst and spew scalding water into the cafeteria and hallway.

No students or staff were present when the catastrophe occurred, but the idea that they could have been has shaken many in the county.

“I’m not scared of a lot of things when [I send my kids] to school,” said Kristy Freeman. “I feel like they’re safe. I feel like they’re happy. I feel like they have wonderful teachers who love them, but I’m scared now that they could be critically burned by maintenance being ignored. That’s ridiculous.”

Her husband, Chris Freeman, a mechanic by trade, also spoke.

“The pressure relief valve is not just a safety, it is the primary safety for those boilers,” Freeman said. “I don’t come to these things ever. But the idea that one of those would fail is ridiculous. I’ve done consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers. I’ve designed projects with the federal government. I can help you try to save a dollar here and there, but you don’t do it by letting the mechanical systems fail.”

Several county firefighters also spoke about the boiler failure.

“I was one of the first responders to show up [to Rodney Thompson],” said Mauricio Ching. “That could have potentially been very bad with regards to staff there and children. I know it would have been a lot to deal with for my brothers and sisters in the fire department. We’re already pretty taxed. I could imagine that if we were to see anything like that with the children, it would wipe out half of our first responders. I want you all to consider the implications of that.”

The maintenance funding approved for the school division will come from a combination of year-end savings, deferring a county park project, and $6 million in proceeds from Virginia Public School Authority bonds.

About $1.3 million will be held by the county in an emergency fund for the school division’s use.

Supervisors approved the school funding as part of the county’s budget for fiscal year 2025, which begins July 1. They also approved a real estate tax rate for calendar year 2024 of $0.90 per $100 of assessed value, plus a 1-cent fire levy, for a combined tax rate of $0.91.

The new tax rate will result in a median monthly increase of $25 for a single family home; $23 for a townhouse; $26 for a condo; and $41 for a single family home on 20 or more acres, according to information prepared by county finance staff.

A handful of speakers on Tuesday asked supervisors not to raise taxes, which they said would burden elderly residents living on fixed incomes. Supervisor Crystal Vanuch, the Rock Hill district representative, said those folks were on her mind as she voted against the tax rate and budget.

“I’ve been clear that I will not support this particular tax rate,” Vanuch said. “I’m really concerned about the unsustainability of continuous tax increases.”

Chair and Falmouth representative Meg Bohmke also voted against the tax rate and the budget. She said it has “nothing to do with not supporting the schools.”

Bohnmke said she feels she has spent more time with the budget than the majority of her fellow supervisors.

“I came from public finance sector and I feel that we have too many financial pressures on our community right now. All these things add up,” she said. “I’m very supportive of all the 3R funding we’ve come up with [for the schools] but I feel we could have sharpened our pencil a bit more. I can’t support the tax rate where it is.”

Supervisors who supported the budget said they did it for the students of the county, the school division staff who work with them, and all county employees – who will receive a 3% scale adjustment and a potential 2% merit pay.

“I want everyone here to understand that for me, it’s going to be people first,” said George Washington district representative Deuntay Diggs. “To me, its a no brainer. The economic engine [of our county] is going to be our schools, and when we take care of our employees, they will take care of the community.”

Griffis-Widewater representative Tinesha Allen also said “it’s about the schools.”

“For me, in any good community, you have to have good, functioning schools. You have to take care of the staff and your assets,” she said. “I appreciate the efforts of my colleagues to increase the 3R funding more than initially, but I didn’t see a reason to also lower the School Board’s ask, because you’re then impacting the personnel that you put in these buildings.”

The School Board requested $15 million in new funding – $2 million more than it will receive – in order to fully fund its budget for fiscal year 2025.

Vanuch and Pamela Yeung, Garrisonville representative, made several attempts on Tuesday to remove funding for elementary school 19 from the county’s 10-year capital improvement plan, but were not successful. The CIP as approved includes $44 million for elementary school 19 and $33.5 million for elementary school 18 in fiscal year 2025, as well as $2 million to begin replacing Drew Middle School.

The bulk of funding for the Drew replacement is scheduled for fiscal year 2027.

Information about the fiscal year 2025 budget is available at the Stafford County government’s website.

Managing Editor and Correspondent