By Krysta Huber
New leaders in the Rockbridge County school district are turning fresh eyes to old policies. The school board is reviewing many of its major programs and procedures, including a 25-year-old contract with the city of Lexington.
Laurie Strong and Kevin Brooks are new to the six-member county school board this year. Jack Donald moved up to superintendent, and Phillip Thompson, also the current principal of Maury River Middle School, took his place as assistant superintendent.
The new board members and administration are taking another look at basic school board guidelines as part of a major policy review process.
“The retirement plans, the sick leave policy, tuition programs for teachers working on graduate degrees – these are all things that are periodically reviewed every five years,” Donald said. “But since it’s a new board, we’re taking the time to go through everything.”
One policy under review is the Rockbridge County High School consolidation agreement between Rockbridge County and the city of Lexington.
The contract was signed in 1989, prior to construction of the high school, which serves both Rockbridge County and Lexington students. The contract outlines a financial agreement between the county and the city, in which Lexington covers the cost of tuition of city students and contributes to school projects and maintenance.
Lexington’s annual tuition payment is based on the percentage of city students in the total high school population. Just over 16 percent of the high school’s students now live in Lexington.
Tuition covers operating costs, such as administrative and teacher salaries, supplies, utilities, and insurance.
But Lexington is also expected to cover a portion of the school’s capital costs. Capital projects might include renovations, additions to the building, and infrastructure improvements. Payment for these expenses is calculated based on the percentage of Lexington students in the school at the time the expenses are incurred.
Brooks said despite the contract, the county has never billed the city directly for these capital projects. Lexington School Board Chair Leslie Straughan said the county has instead used surplus tuition money to cover capital costs.
In the last few years, the county has replaced the high school’s roofing, updated some of its bathrooms, and installed new windows in the courtyard. Thompson said the city of Lexington wasn’t charged for these projects.
“It’s one of those things where there really wasn’t a huge need until recently,” Thompson said. “And now that we’re all new, we want to make sure we do it the way that the contract was originally written.”
Now that the high school building is more than 20 years old, Brooks said it could use a lot of improvements. Both the city and county said that the high school is in serious need of a wireless network system.
“We put a lot of money into our middle school and it’s very high-tech and up-to-date,” Brooks said. “We don’t want our kids coming out of that middle school into a high school stepping backwards into the Dark Ages with old technology.”
Donald said in an email that the anticipated expense for a wireless network and new infrastructure is around $500,000. Based on the terms of the contract and using the current percentage of city students at the high school, Lexington would contribute about $80,000 to that project.
Straughan said increasing Lexington’s contribution to such capital costs won’t cause any conflict and is to be expected.
“The projects haven’t been that big so far, but going forward I imagine they will bill us,” she said.
The contract is in effect until 2040, and Donald said he doesn’t expect to make any changes. Changing the terms of the contract would require mutual consent from the county and city school boards, Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, and Lexington City Council.
But in reviewing the agreement, Brooks said he hopes to formalize the billing and payment process.
“We’re in the budget cycle right now, so we feel it incumbent upon ourselves to make sure we provide Lexington the best information we can for its own budget process,” Brooks said. “What we’re trying to develop is a very precise billing and tracking program that ensures the billings that follow…are accurate and appropriate.”
Donald said he and the assistant superintendent are trying to look critically at many of the school system’s policies during this review period.
“Even though Phillip [Thompson] and I are from the inside, we’re acting like we’re from the outside,” he said. “We don’t want to take for granted what someone from the outside would come in and say, ‘Why are we doing this like this?’ And that pertains to everything we’re doing right now, not just this contract.”
Jay Lewis, chairman of the county school board, said taking another look at the school consolidation contract and other school system basics is part of having a new team.
“There are a lot of folks here who are just trying to get their feet wet on our operations and following our procedures, as [they] should,” he said. “That contract is one piece of all the things we need to make sure we’re doing right.”