School Board proposes plan for preschool classrooms

By Josette Keelor

WOODSTOCK — However possible, Shenandoah County Public Schools plan to add two new preschool classrooms this fall. Despite a decrease in state funding for the classrooms through the Virginia Preschool Initiative, schools could make this effort possible with less overall funding from the county.

The state budget approved on Feb. 26 has reduced Shenandoah County’s state funding of the preschool program by $68,548 — an equivalent of funding one of two teachers for additional preschool classrooms, said Superintendent Jeremy Raley.

The commonwealth limited districts to 127 students in the VPI program, but Raley told the School Board at a Wednesday night work session he still intends to fill 142 seats. He said the General Assembly’s decision was based on Virginia’s collective needs for personalized early childhood education.

The county’s needs keep growing, though. There are 39 local children on a waiting list to receive early childhood education and free or reduced price meals through the public school system.

“We are going above and beyond what the state says it will fund,” Raley said.

The School Board’s request for county funding for its 2016 fiscal budget includes $112,021 for the two preschool classes, half of which would be funded through state dollars, but overall the board plans to reduce its funding request from the amount it anticipated two weeks ago.

The total projected budget for the 2015-16 school year is $2,802,256, up from the $2,770,608 announced on Feb. 19. However, accounting for state revenue, Raley said the board’s request from county supervisors will be $2,434,202, a reduction of $252,678.

Included in the budget is an across-the-board pay increase for school employees required for districts receiving state funding. After speaking with the Virginia Department of Education, Raley said he acquired approval to provide a higher percentage of raises than the 1.5 percent the commonwealth requires.

Based in part on market competitiveness, proposed raises for Shenandoah employees range from a 0.65 percent average for bus drivers to a 9.63 percent average for instructional assistants. Current bus driver salaries are competitive, while instructional assistant salaries are not. Moreover, employees who have worked for the school system longer might have higher than average raises.

For teachers, the average raise will be 2.24 percent, and for the average school employee 2.52 percent.

Also announcing “some positive, preliminary, unofficial news,” Raley said plans for a countywide Biomedical Health Science Academy located at Central High School in Woodstock are underway, which, if approved, will provide an exceptional learning experience for students.

Requiring a long-term commitment, the initial startup could happen for $69,528, with the combination of public money from schools and private money through area healthcare entities.

Board members Kathryn Holsinger and Sonya Williams-Giersch agreed it’s an effort worth pursuing.

“I’m all for it,” Holsinger said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for our students.”

But finding space for more classrooms in a division already struggling with overcrowding hasn’t been easy.

One of the proposed preschool classrooms will also be at Central High School, and the other at Ashby Lee Elementary School in Quicksburg, said Tammi Hopkins, coordinator of preschool education.

The class at Central will take the place of a high-school level early childhood education course, which will move to Triplett Tech in Mount Jackson.

Raley said the move makes sense, since the course is categorized under career and technical education.

Each preschool class will have a teacher and instructional assistant for 12 students, all of whom meet new state regulations of living at 200 percent of the national poverty level, Hopkins said. The county’s other seven classrooms — two in Strasburg, two in Quicksburg and three in Woodstock — each have 18 students. Three to six students in each class have individualized education plans for special education needs.

Most students on the waiting list live within district lines of attending the fourth proposed classroom in Woodstock, but Hopkins said the classroom on the southern campus would be useful too in offsetting a recent increase of applicants living in and around Mount Jackson.

The applicant pool in that area is higher than ever, for reasons she said she couldn’t explain. Inclusion in the classes is contingent on need, not on a first-come, first-served basis.

“I wish I could get everyone in,” she said.

Hopkins said she has plans to reach across division lines whenever possible, “to capture as many kids as we need to.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or