Who is Auditing How Tax Dollars are Spent?

Recently someone posed the question “Who is auditing how your tax dollars are being spent?”

Good question, especially because the school system currently receives 56.75% of county revenue.   Auditing confirms if our tax dollars are spent efficiently, economically and legally, and how well public funds are protected from potential fraud or abuse.

Prince William County Schools has had an independent external annual audit of the system for many years.  That independent annual audit checks that our accounting measures up to accepted accounting principles, that we obey all laws and that we have an adequate control structure to safeguard our assets.  In other words this once a year audit, performed by an outside firm, checks to make sure the system as a whole isn’t cooking the books or using a red crayon and a steno pad to keep track of our money.

In 2010 I enthusiastically supported adding another layer of tax dollar protection with the creation of an internal auditor position which would directly report to the school board via the Internal Audit Committee (as opposed to the Superintendent), providing an extra layer of objectivity. The Board of County Supervisors had recently added an internal audit function for the county and encouraged the school system to do the same.  Like the county, the School Board hired a full time Internal Auditor.

This new internal auditor is able to delve much closer into school system finances, independently and objectively.  The internal auditor (IA) systematically looks at different schools, departments and programs and also looks into anything brought forward on the Waste, Fraud and Abuse hotline.  Each year the Internal Audit Committee and the IA prepares an Audit Plan that decides what areas need to be looked at that year.  The plan is risk based, so we are looking to see where the highest risks are for fraud, abuse, mistakes, etc. are and then we prioritize those areas for the first audit reviews.

Our current Audit Plan covers such areas as school Activity Fund accounts, booster clubs, procurement cards, School Facility Use agreements, and food service, among others.  The IA also conducts several surprise audits each year just to check that our site based management system is working as it should.  All the meeting agendas and Audit Plans are public and available on the school website.  The auditor provides analysis and recommendations to the School Board as to where changes should be made or action taken.

I am proud that Prince William County was a leader in establishing this new layer of protection for tax payers.  I will continue to look for ways to protect tax payer dollars as well as ways to be more efficient with our precious monetary resources.  These are dollars that the tax payers have entrusted us with to use for the education of our county students and it is important that we make sure that is exactly where those tax dollars are going.   I am always receptive to input from students, teachers, parents and taxpayers on ways the school system can improve financially.

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A Visit to TJ

I had the chance last week to tour the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and visit with our Prince William County students who attend the regional Governor’s School, or TJ, as it is affectionately known.  TJ serves students from Arlington, Alexandria, Loudoun, Fauquier, Fairfax, Falls Church and PWC.  PWC Seniors Angela and Rheem gave me an extensive tour where I was able to visit with both students and teachers. In one lab I chatted with students who are studying the nervous system response of crayfish and some other soft, squishy water critter.  We stopped by a Physics class and listened to the lecture – the teacher was very good, but fortunately we didn’t stay too long as I was starting to have flashbacks to some of my college Physics lectures. At the end of the tour, we got stuck in the guidance office for a lock-down drill.  Thankfully the lady at the front desk had lots of M&M’s.

After my tour I had the opportunity to sit with about 20 PWC students who’d volunteered to come chat with me. This was my favorite time of the visit.  These appreciative 15-18 yr olds were very mature and honest in their answers. I asked them what they liked best about their TJ experience and what they liked least. What they liked varied but as true NoVa veterans, there was strong consensus in that the one thing they didn’t like was the commute. Many of them were spending an hour each way on the road – matching my commute exactly. One thing was absolutely clear is that these students love learning and they were taking advantage of every opportunity given to them.  

I am looking forward to having the same type of visit soon with our own Governor’s School @ Innovation Park and also chatting with another group of talented PWC students and their teachers.  This innovative program is unlike any other Governor’s School in Virginia because of the affiliation with a 4-yr university so I will be anxious to report back what our incredible students have to say about it.

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PWC Education Reform Blog Candidate Questionnaire

The blogmasters at PWC Education Reform Blog recently put together a valuable candidate questionnaire for Prince William County 2011 School Board candidates.  The questions were  well written, prepared by parents knowledgeable about our schools and I was delighted to participate.  I have been honored to work with these parents on a number of issues over the past 4 years.  I hope you will take the time to look at their website and read my responses as well as  the other candidates who responded to this questionnaire.  I believe you will see why my consistent conservative leadership and experience is good for Prince William County Schools.

PWC Education Reform Blog 2011 Candidate Questionnaire

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Our Governor’s School – An Incredible Opportunity

I was talking with a parent this week and the conversation turned to her son’s experience with The Governor’s School @ Innovation Park which just opened September 2010.  She is extremely pleased with both the rigor of the curriculum and the college credits her son is earning. By the time he is finished, between his AP credits and the classes at the Governor’s school courses, he expects to have over 45 college credits under his belt – nearly 1 & 1/2 years!

For those of you not familiar with the Governor’s School, it is a two year program of study for Juniors and Seniors based at George Mason’s Prince William Campus that integrates biology, chemistry, and physics with mathematics, with concepts of engineering and technology, and laboratory research. More information can be found at: 

PWCS Governor’s School     (http://governor.schools.pwcs.edu/ ) 

It is the only Governor’s school in the state associated with a 4-year University which provides a unique opportunity for high school students to weave science, technology, engineering and math concepts together with the core curriculum focused on environmental issues.  GMU’s STEM focus at this campus allows for incredible mentorship opportunities with teachers and scientists working on the cutting edge of these science fields.

The most productive part of the conversation was when this mom provided a piece of advice based on her experiences that I found especially helpful:  If you think your student might be interested in The Governor’s School when they are in high school then start planning early.  Extended math in middle school and continuing the math progression in high school will better prepare your child for the academic rigor they will experience at the Governor’s School.
Getting the jump on the foreign language requirement in middle school will give your student the opportunity to complete the requirement for an advanced diploma and free up some time to focus on the STEM classes in the last two years.

Consider looking into this advanced innovative program for your child.

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The War on Milk?

Imagine my surprise Friday afternoon when I learned that the Feds have ruled that schools who participate in the National Lunch and Breakfast Programs are now not allowed to offer 2% or whole milk.  Yes, even 2% is now considered unhealthy (The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010).  I guess the milk people will have to change their “milk does a body good” campaign.

 I understand the concerns about childhood obesity. I understand that plain fat free milk is usually a healthier choice than whole milk and I agree that we should be serving healthy meals to our students. However, worrying about the fat content in milk seems to me like worrying about the calorie count in green beans and carrots every time I had to weigh in for the Navy. Nobody gets fat from eating too many vegetables and I don’t buy the idea that our kids are getting obese from drinking too much whole milk. 

 This is one of those areas where I would say that we should defer to the parents. We can serve skim milk at schools and if parents feel that their kids are better off drinking whole milk for nutrition reasons then I don’t see why the Feds should interfere. Parents should be able to request 2% or whole milk for their child without having to get a doctor’s note. 

The Trenum family does drink skim milk only, but this “whole” discussion just seems a little silly to me (pun intended). Doesn’t our federal government have other things that they should be worrying about? What’s next, making it a controlled substance?

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A Salute to Parent Volunteers

Earlier this week I stopped by the house of one of the new Booster officers for Patriot HS.  I wasn’t surprised to find that both he and his wife were up at Patriot HS that evening for a meeting.  These same parents were dedicated volunteers at BDHS so I know that Patriot boosters will benefit from those experienced hands.  The former Battlefield and Brentsville parents have really come together to make sure students will have a terrific high school experience.    At Patriot ribbon cutting, I ran into a Battlefield dad (child just graduated in June) who was already volunteering at Patriot in service to his younger child.  He was enthusiastically selling Patriot wear at the school’s ribbon cutting event. 

Then last night I had the pleasure of meeting the new Piney Branch Elementary PTSO.  This dedicated group of parents is already in full swing with activities for their new student body.  They were busy planning their first fundraiser, a healthy event involving running laps for cash.  I recognized familiar faces from Buckland Mills, Ellis and Glenkirk’s PTO groups.  The volunteers at T. Clay Wood ES have created a dynamic collaborative for their new school from 4 former PTO groups that were out in full force at their ribbon cutting.  Everyone bought good ideas from their former school.

It takes a tremendous amount of organization to put together a booster or PTO group from scratch.  Then it takes more hard work to make sure that group smoothly transitions parents cycling in and out as their children enter and exit the school (Stonewall Jackson is an example of one of those well oiled booster machines and I am continually amazed by their fundraising that has withstood the test of time). 

Opening 3 new schools involves an army of people.  We all know about the school staff and construction crew working all summer.  But what some of you may not have realized is that a new school also takes this legion of parent volunteers…parents who will rotate the purple Bobcat or orange Tiger golf shirts to the back of the closet and buy new red and blue Pioneer sportswear…parents who give up part of their summer to organize new boy scout and girl scout troops, or to arrange PTO elections…parents who start up orchestra and band booster clubs.

I applaud this group of parents who are willing to step in early, taking the reins to make sure the new school students have the same support as the students of our existing schools. Thank you for everything you have done for PWCS students.  We could not do it without you!

And a big thank you to the many volunteers from all our different PTO and booster groups in the western end of the county who’ve put in long hours to make their school’s experience special.   Your efforts at helping these new schools get off the ground with a strong base is appreciated and the good example you’ve set is what makes the Brentsville District a great place to live and go to school.

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T. Clay Wood’s 92nd Birthday

Today I attended T. Clay Wood’s 92nd birthday celebration which was held at T. Clay Wood Elementary School with the school staff and the Nokesville Ruritans.  Channel 4 News was there and interviewed Mr. Wood.  He said he was amazed to see 2 schools where his family once farmed almost 100 years ago.

It is so nice to see the school embrace their namesake and to see community groups like the Ruritans embrace our new schools.  Mr. Wood talked about growing up on the farm and his 24 years serving on the school board.  Having served over 3 years myself, I have to applaud him for the many years of dedication.  During his terms on school board, he saw incredible growth in PWC although it was on the eastern end of the county way back then.  He is also the board member who had to foresight to bring a high school out to the western end (Brentsville).  Because of his dedication to students and his commitment to building schools back in the 60’s, he is a personal inspiration to me.

T. Clay’s Principal, Mr. Buchheit has been working hard to get the school ready for students. When the children arrive in September they will be stepping into a beautiful modern school with almost 100 years of history behind it.  Congratulations Mr. Wood and Go Timberwolves!

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PWCS and Gainesville Grizzly Concussion Awareness Training

This week I had the opportunity to attend two concussion sessions.  The first one was the PWCS high school session for fall sport parents and students.  The program did a good job of explaining second impact syndrome and the consequences of playing before your brain is completely healed.  PWCS is fortunate to have great athletic trainers because they are the front lines with concussion awareness.  They are also teaching the students how to spot a teammate’s concussion.  Most importantly, we need to reinforce to our kids not to hide or lie about symptoms because they think they will get back in the game sooner.  Please reinforce that with your student for their own safety.

Why do parents have to go to a separate Middle School session if they have a MS athlete?  The MS information is different.  Middle Schools do not have athletic trainers or athletic directors which changes how the post concussion process is handled.  Parents of MS athletes will need to attend a separate session regardless of whether they attended a high school session.  I know, I know…another meeting, but this could be so important to your child’s health.  The next batch of dates for high school and middle school sessions are below but check your school website for updates.  Even if your child is not participating in a high school or middle school sport but is involved in a recreation league, I would still urge you attend one of the sessions for valuable information about concussions in general.   I know we all have busy lives, but your child only has one brain and it is worth protecting. 

Then Thursday evening I went to the concussion awareness training sponsored by the Gainesville Grizzly youth football organization. Virginia State law requires schools to provide concussion training but does not require recreational leagues to do anything.  It is very commendable that the Grizzlies have taken the extra step of providing training for parents and coaches AND that they are providing guidance to their coaches.  They are demonstrating leadership and being proactive on this issue. Hopefully more rec leagues will follow their example.

HIGH SCHOOL CONCUSSION AWARENESS SESSIONS

 Monday, August 8th at 9:00 AM at Battlefield High School.

MIDDLE SCHOOL CONCUSSION AWARENESS SESSIONS

Bull Run MS:  Aug 31st and Sep 7th.

Gainesville MS:  Sep 1st and 7th, Nov 1st, Jan 17th and March 22nd

Marsteller MS:  Aug 24th, Sep 7th, Nov 2nd, Jan 10th, Mar 13th

Check your local middle school web site for more times and details.

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Why We Must Go Beyond the SOLs

OK … so my 16-year old stays up late last night … the night before his SOL exam for his summer online US History course. Is he diligently studying the material he covered the last few weeks, making sure he can recall key concepts and events like he did for his mid-term and his final exam?  No.  He’s busy catching up with his friends that he hasn’t seen for all of two weeks. When I reminded him of the SOL exam, he simply shrugged and said; “It’s the SOL dad, it’s not like it is hard.  Don’t worry I’ll make enough for Pass Advanced.”

From the mouths of babes comes some truth; even ‘babes’ with a size 12 foot who can carb load 2,000 calories of Cinnamon Toast Crunch at a single sitting.  

If we want to call ourselves a World Class Education provider, then we should provide a world class education.  That means going beyond the essentials and expecting more of our students.  There is plenty of research out there that confirms that the first step in raising student achievement is simply expecting them to achieve more. We should extend learning beyond the basics. We need to evaluate our curriculum not only against the SOL requirements but also against those of the school divisions our students will compete against as they are finishing high school.

We congratulate ourselves when we have high SOL pass rates. There are always students that for one reason or another have difficulties with the SOL exams. There are some years where the exam is just harder than usual. So we should be pleased when the pass rates are high and getting higher. But we must be careful not to break our arms patting ourselves on the back.  

The truth of the matter is that the SOL exams are minimum competency exams. These are the expectations for all students across the state.  If a student can demonstrate understanding of 2/3 of these objectives on the exam, they pass.

This past spring, the administration proposed adopting the SOL Curriculum Frameworks as our curriculum.  The logic behind this “SOL only” proposal is that the state has increased the rigorof the SOLs and that adopting the Frameworks is a default increase for our curriculum.  This greatly concerned me and I made my concerns public.  I proposed that our staff should benchmark the proposed curriculum with neighboring jurisdictions and then present the results to us in September.  My proposal was adopted unanimously by my fellow School Board members.

 If you care about expecting more of our county students than the SOL minimums, then I hope you’ll support me in pushing for instructional programming that challenges even the best students.  We want our students to graduate with the extended knowledge and skills that will allow them to compete in the workforce of the future.

My son took his SOL exam this morning. He said “It was easy.” He’s pretty confident that he scored well enough to get a Pass Advanced. I guess we’ll see in a few weeks.

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BLOG – Dealing with the “Big Bang” – Predicting Our Student Population Numbers

 

This year we are finally seeing the beginning payoff of the planning changes the School Board made in 2008.  Addressing overcrowding is a top priority of the current School Board, as evidenced by the September opening of Patriot HS, T. Clay Wood ES and Piney Branch ES despite lean budget years.  I am working hard to earn another 4 years on the School Board to make sure our students have the best environment for learning – which includes adequate school facilities.  I believe we must continue to push forward and attack overcrowding to prevent the overcrowding we have seen in the past.  Planning is a big part of that.

We don’t have a crystal ball when it comes to predicting how many students we’ll have in 10 years…which is too bad because it would certainly make things easier on our planning department.   The only certainty is that PWC will have more students in 2021 than now because PWC is still a growing county.  But how many more students???   In place of the crystal ball, we have models that help us come up with estimates.   Our planning team is good at estimating 1 to 4 years out how many children will be in our schools but new schools take several years to plan and build.  So we have to plan for much longer periods of time.  

 Even for the best planners, trying to estimate 10+ years out is very difficult because there are so many variables completely out of the school system’s control and these are variables that could swing either way. The variables include new housing developments that are approved, the economy, and changing demographic patterns. 

Approval of new residential development by the PWC Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) has the most direct impact on student populations. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that approving thousands of new homes is going to directly affect the schools and overcrowding, which is why the BOCS is the most important variable, and yet it is one that can’t be predicted. BOCS members are elected every four years, so ten years of planning involves 3 possibly different Boards and their associated, and sometimes changing, views on development.  

The local economy can either accelerate or slow down development which affects associated student growth and the dollars available to the school system. Also, new demographic patterns can change some of the basic assumptions in our models such as how many children might come from each housing unit.  The  housing market slump and  the School Board’s commitment to moving up new schools in overcrowded areas has allowed us a small opportunity to catch up.  But we can’t always count on a slow housing market.

The school system’s plan to address growth is found in the Capital Improvement Program (CIP).  The CIP lists the new schools, additions and major renovations that the administration believes will be necessary over the next 10 years.  It takes at least 5 years from acquiring raw land to opening a high school or middle schools.  This is shortened to approximately 2-3 years for an elementary school under ideal circumstances. 

The current (FY 2012 -2021) CIP can be found here.

In the past the School Board was not as outspoken about growth and how it affected students and learning.   In 2008 when I was elected, along with Chairman Milt Johns and the rest of the School Board, we made some major changes in how the school system communicated the effects of overcrowding and responded to our planning estimates.  If things look better to you this September than it has it recent years, it is because of some of those important changes.

The first big change this School Board made was in providing the BOCS with a better understanding of how a proposed development will affect the existing schools.  The School Board doesn’t vote on development but our staff does provide comments to the BOCS. In 2008, we implemented a standing policy of NOT supporting development in areas where the affected schools were overcrowded and our new written comments and staff analyses reflects that new policy. Since my district was often the most overcrowded, personally I go one step. I speak as a citizen at BOCS and Planning Commission public hearings to explain the impact that approval of a new development will have on existing schools and students.  I also speak out when a proffered (developer donated) school site is not in a good location or when a proposed development will further overload already overstressed schools and taxpayers.   I feel that before a vote is taken; the BOCS members want to know what that vote will do to existing students and taxpayers. 

The second big change has to do with the School Board being more involved with the CIP and prioritizing it in the budgeting process. In the past, when budgets were tight, one of the first places to go to free up funding was by delaying projects.  Now, instead of automatically delaying projects, the School Board looks for alternatives to more effectively and efficiently spend our budget dollars. We moved up both Patriot HS and Piney Branch ES each by a year because the overcrowding was so severe at the elementary schools along the Linton Hall corridor and at Battlefield and Brentsville high schools.  This May, we also voted to move up the Devlin Rd. ES for the same reasons. 

I want to look at moving up the next middle and high schools in the western end of the county to accommodate both currently approved development as well as any additional development that may be approved.  By making these changes we are hoping to avoid the severe overcrowding we’ve seen the last 7 years that frustrates parents, teachers and administrators alike.  My goal is always to move forward, attacking overcrowding before school sites look like trailer parks and before we have one way hallways in our high schools. 

We still don’t have a crystal ball for those 10 year figures but we are certainly better off this September than we were 4 years ago.  As for the future, we have to continue to be on guard; aggressively addressing areas of overcrowding. We must be proactive and adaptive and not repeat the mistakes of the past.  I hope you will continue to trust me as a leader on this issue.

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