Should We Combine City and County Schools?

Should city and county schools consolidate into a single school system? That question gets raised periodically, and Will Goldsmith is chewing it over in the latest C-Ville Weekly. The city’s recent school efficiency study didn’t address the topic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering. City school board member Llezelle Dugger tells the paper that it’s just not viable, but Albemarle school board member Brian Wheeler thinks it’s well worth spending some time looking at it.

The notion of combining services has been around for a long time, as has the idea that we should just combine the two entities entirely. The word “reversion” still prompts shudders in the veterans of the mid-90s township wars, when some folks were pushing to have the city demoted to a town in order to force cooperation between the entities. Some sort of large-scale collaboration may allow the revenue sharing agreement to be set aside, or at least absorbed into the largest costs of running joint services, and that might be good for everybody.

48 thoughts on “Should We Combine City and County Schools?”

  1. So, in terms of what’s in it for the county, the county and city would renegotiate their revenue-sharing scheme?

  2. Of course they should combine services. Why are the exact services being duplicated by two sets of administrators whose offices are only 3 miles apart, and both in the City of Charlottesville? Why do I have to put my children on a bus that takes them to a school that is 3 times farther away than a City school which is in my neighborhood? We need to see, in real dollars the amount this consolidation will save, and then maybe the idea will get some backing.

  3. We share CATEC; the city has three slots in Murray High School and would love many more; the city wants to hire an attorney and the County already has one (so maybe we could share that position?). Testing? We both do it–why not together under one office? Monticello High School has an ROTC program, I understand. CHS doesn’t. Wouldn’t it be nice if kids who want ROTC could go to Monticello? (Just as kids who want CHS’s orchestra program can currently pay to come to the city schools.) We have AP classes the county doesn’t–couldn’t we have more if we operated this program jointly? Honestly, I am heartened to see Brian Wheeler and Kathy Galvin open to the discussion. We need to have it, especially now as we are discussing cuts to instructional and building administration staff, and academic programs.

  4. School consolidation would be something that I would find theoretically acceptable but I wouldn’t want to merge into a single government overall.

    City rules and laws are good for people who live in a city but should not be applied to rural areas. I have little doubt that a fully merged government would soon result in urban and suburban regulations being shoved down rural throats with the kindest of misplaced intentions.

  5. Karl makes great points; thank you, Karl!

    I am shocked there are no AP classes offered in county schools!

  6. I am going to watch these comments carefully and I appreciate the feedback on this topic.

    With respect to Advanced Placement (AP) courses, Albemarle County Public Schools will offer AP classes in 21 subjects during 2009-2010. We also will offer another 16 courses as dual enrollment with Piedmont Virginia Community College. Dual enrollment courses are offered at the high schools and allow students to earn college credits.

    I came up with those numbers just thumbing through the index of our Program of Studies for next year, so I hope I got the numbers straight. I believe our rigorous course offerings have expanded significantly over the past decade.

    Brian Wheeler, At-Large Member
    Albemarle County School Board

  7. I do not feel that bigger is better when it comes to school systems. The City art program is far superior to the County and one reason I believe the city schools attract so many outstanding students. This would be lost if the schools merged. That is not to say they could not do much more to co-operate in certain areas.

  8. City rules and laws are good for people who live in a city but should not be applied to rural areas. I have little doubt that a fully merged government would soon result in urban and suburban regulations being shoved down rural throats with the kindest of misplaced intentions.

    I think the that the opposite could come about. With no more concerns about revenue-sharing, the boundaries of Charlottesville-as-town could expand to include the urbanized ring. Charlottesville could enact whatever rules that they like (in the manner of Scottsville) that are appropriate in an urban setting, and Albemarle could worry less about meeting the needs of urban residents, with Charlottesville having subsumed them.

  9. Betty, why would the excellence of the city school’s art program be lost if the systems merged? You offer no reasons or evidence to explain that claim, so I’m left wondering why?

  10. Regarding Waldo’s comments about development regulations, I think currently there is quite a bit of conflict there.

    For example, Albemarle uses density as a carrot, but as I understand it, the City gives it away for free. That makes it exceptionally hard to implement something like a TDR program becuase there is no limit to the supply. It would be like me trying to sell you chocolate chip cookies when your mom just made you a batch for nothing.

    Likewise, the County has land use taxation, whereby certain landowners get extensive taxbreak for “farming” (or at least owning a forest or field). Unfortunately, the revenue sharing never took that program into account, so the county ends up paying the city more in revenue from these land owners than it gets back in taxes.

    While I would support greater cooperation, I suspect that it’s almost impossible that Albemarle would allow an expansion of the city limits. After all, it loses money on residential areas, and only make smoney on the commercial areas. If the City took the rest of the urban area, the County would have no tax base anymore.

    I do support merging the schools though, or at least doing a study to determine if consolidation would save money and bring any additional benefits. While I’m sure lots of people at the top won’t want share control of their kingdom, the best interests of the kids and fiscal responsibility should be put first.

  11. Ah, but you’re still thinking under the Charlottesville-as-city paradigm, Lonnie. The county can direct its density to Charlottesville-as-town, where it should be, keeping the county rural. And why not? It loses out on nothing, because Charlottesville-as-town is part of Albemarle’s tax base. By making Charlottesville a town, that tax base tension is gone.

  12. Perhaps there are now enough democrats in the county to make this possible. I think most county parents today would resist the changes because they believe Albemarle is a better school system. It bothers me that it’s out of fear and ignorance more than truth. If the parents don’t want it then no supervsior will vote for it. It would be a career ender.

  13. Obama, Warner, and Perriello all rolled to victory in the city and county. (Smallest margin: Obama in the county by 18%.)

    I liked Brian Wheeler’s comment in Cville Weekly: “But we’ve got two localities that are very similar. The demographics are different in the city, but that doesn’t scare me at all. What is the same is the passion and the leadership wanting all of our students to be successful.”

    If we can’t have a conversation about this (as we slash our budgets), something is terribly wrong.

  14. Cecil, I am not up to date on current data but when my daughter was in school the City Arts Program was far superior to the County, and also had more financial backing. Does anyone know if that is still true?

  15. Having worked in both dchool systems, there’s a real cultural difference in the budget process of both schools. It appears that the county’s budget is scrutinized much more closely by the budget hawks in the community than the city’s. When it comes time to making cuts, arts and strings programs in the county seem to have been the low-hanging fruit that was the first to be cut in tough times.

    Administratively, the individual county schools have had far greater autonomy (for better and for worse) than the city schools where things are much top-down and centralized, or at least were in the past when I worked there.

    While Albemarle is becoming more suburbanized, there is still a strong and vocal anti-tax group that wants government subsidized at a bare minimum. There is significant micro-managing of the budget process from the school board. With the city, you have more of the urban socio-economic concerns with the need for wraparound community resources, although the county’s need has been increasing with the high housing cost.

    I think the way to go would be the incremental route, adding program by program that could be administered collaboratively.

  16. Thanks BCK that is a good description of the different cultures and I think the quality of the city schools would suffer overall if they merged with the county. I think the city schools are on the whole superior for the diversity of students they educate and would lose out by becoming one system.

  17. Betty, while it may be that city schools may be considered superior, I wouldn’t say it was because of the diversity. In fact, that is one thing that I feel the city does (or at least did when I worked there) rather poorly. Once you get out of the elementary schools, there is significant segregation of students based not so much on race but on class. The more affluent parents have fought very hard for tracking and keeping their darlings in the honors progrem where they have very little contact with the kids from the projects and the poor working class white kids from Belmont. Those kids are tracked into basic or applied classes that don’t have the same resources (human and material) as the honors/AP do. The adage of the squeaky wheel getting the resources was alive and well during my time.

    Now, I must give the caveat that it has been over 5 years since I worked in the city, so perhaps things have changed …

  18. Well, BCK, don’t forget that there is the token kid from the projects or Hog Waller who gets placed in honors classes to appease any concerns folks have that racial and class-based discrimination is still at work.

    No, seriously, when I left the city, there were some decent programs in place to get underserved students the support they needed for success in upper level courses (think the Talent Development program at Buford and CHS–too little too late, but at least a start). the county, on the other hand, talked a lot about the problem of the achievement gap, but did little to address it.

  19. Waldo, somehow I missed that you were indeed speaking of reversion, not just something approximating reversion.

    I was always in favor of reversion, simply because most of the county residents work in Charlottesville. It seems odd that I spend just about as much time in the City as I do in the county, yet I have no vote in the city.

    I also think it would do a lot to mitigate some of the long standing conflicts, especially regarding roads and such. Right now, quite a bit of tension is generated because Albemarle wants the city to build roads like the Meadowcreek Freeway, that don’t serve the city, and the city wants roads like the Eastern Connector that the County is reluctant to build. If the costs and resources were shared, then there might be more mutual interest in finding common ground.

    (Leaving aside the issue of whether these roads should be build in the first place)

  20. The county is now actually doing something to address the achievement gap. How effective is it/will it be is anybody’s guess. They are using the School-Based Intervention Team model to implement systems of interventions at each school. The system is set up to be able to give targeted students the intensity of intervention support they need to do well instead of the old wait-to-fail. The effectiveness of the implementation of this system will of course vary school to school but it does have lot of potential.

  21. BCK,

    Back when I was in high school this was my biggest complaint. They had this level system which was supposedly created to give kids who needed it more help, but really was just a means of institutionalizing inequality. Once a kid was tracked into lower level courses they rarely left. Instead of getting help to catch up, they were put in classes with kids who had behavior problems and with inexperienced or simply bad teachers.

    What I observed, is that your kid could be dumb as dirt, but if you came from a family with money or influence then you’d be placed in upper level classes and get a decent education. If you were a minority or poor, then quickly somehow you ended up in lower level classes and never left.

    A classmate of mine once mentioned that it was like having this entire school within a school that we never met or really mixed with unless we did sports.

  22. Lonnie,

    To be clear, these levels of intervention are in addition to their regular classes, not instead of. The schools have to create a “intervention time” that would not take away any regular instruction. What you’re referring to is a real concern that I raised in my previous reply about the city schools back in the day. Not saying this couldn’t also still happen in the county, but the interventions I was referring to are a separate topic.

  23. Addressing the achievement gap is something that really needs to begin at the elementary level, when reading becomes something loved vs. something loathed and when children develop things like work ethic, self-perception, stick-with-it-ness, communication skills, expectations, etc… From what I can see, neither the county nor the city do enough to ensure that their youngest learners love reading and are developing these other, more important qualities.

  24. VOD,

    One of the things I learned when I studied English Education* was that there is a coorelation between many of these kids who don’t like to read and their inability to visualize scenes in their head. For these kids, they never stop seeing just words on the page, while for the rest of us, at some point the words disappear and become like a movie or a dream.

    If you really think about this trend it a bit disturbing. Effectively what is happening here is that kids are losing the ability to imagine. Because they have just about any visual provided for them without the need to imagine most things, they are actually losing that ability. While the impact on skills like reading is troubling, it may have serious implications in other ways as well.

    So, it may be that if we really want our kids to be readers then what we really need to teach them is how to imagine. In many ways, that was where Harry Potter was such a success. It provided a gateway to that kind of imagination, without any intervention from Shakespeare or Jane Austen whatsoever.

    *(Yes I know, you’d never guess it from my poor editing skills comments on this blog!)

  25. I would just throw this out there, with the caveat that my observations and personal experience are fairly limited: yes, the elementary level is where there should be the greatest emphasis on reading if there’s going to be any hope of lessening the achievement gap, but let’s keep in mind that in many kindergarten (even pre-K) is too late to plant that seed for the very first time. If a child is coming from an environment that for 4-5 years has not emphasized reading or literacy or immersion in imaginative works — if the background is just not enriched in that way — then even the best-trained teachers in the best-funded schools are facing a really daunting task. I spend a little bit of time in a county elementary school, and I see how hard teachers are working with the kids who need extra help in reading, and folks, IT’S REALLY HARD. It’s not the case that they’re not committed, not trying, etc. It’s just really, really hard to take that child to the same level of comfort and fluency that a kid from a highly enriched background is going to have in terms of reading.

    I don’t mean to say “give up, it’s futile,” but it seems absurd to me to say “elementary school is where it begins,” because it’s not.

  26. Cecil,

    You make a very good point. We often treat the schools as if it is their sole job to educate the children, but a whole lot of the work of learning happens outside the classroom. When parents aren’t involved in their kids learning, there’s not a whole lot that teachers can do.

    It’s a big problem in society that goes far beyond just education, and I don’t know how to fix it.

  27. Lonnie,

    In your brief mention of imagination, you demonstrate an understanding of the problem that dwarfs the collective understanding of most of the decision makers in the CCS system (and possibly the ACPS system as well).

    Having said this, I also agree with Cecil that the problem begins before elementary school, which means that the solution must begin before elementary school.

    However, I do believe that within most children there is the capacity, even without a strong ability to visualize/imagine, to feel some spark of emotion through text (laughter, joy, sadness). If children never reach the point of being “touched” by a text, then the battle is lost. The problem within our schools is that many children never get the opportunity to feel these sorts of feelings, as they are hustled too quickly into “reading to learn.” In fact, I would say that, not only has the joy been taken out of early reading experiences, but that the joy has been taken out of schools pretty much even to the kindergarten level. It’s a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, whereby you must feel safe, loved, and happy before you’re going to learn very much. This seems to have been misplaced somewhere along the way.

  28. i don’t think it is just visualization skills…

    I think it is comprehension skills.

    There is quite a sizable body of research into the vocabulary differences between upper middle class White children and other children upon entry into kindergarten.

    However, rarely if ever, do schools put coordinated time and attention into teaching vocabulary to young children.

    I think about the time a student of mine was confused by the question, “Distinguish the difference between osmosis and diffusion” on a test. I knew he knew the answer, and he easily told me the difference between the two. However, he didn’t know the word distinguish…

  29. Yeah, I don’t want to come off sounding as if I’m giving up on children who aren’t already ready for school when kindergarten starts — very far from it. I think there’s a lot that dedicated teachers can achieve with underprepared kids.

    It’s funny that VOD mentions taking the joy out of reading; I volunteered in my son’s classroom last year for a little while, and my job was to work with an underprepared kid on his reading. The books he had to work with were these, to my mind, HORRIBLY boring, programmatic things; they were far less interesting than even “see spot run, run spot run.” I could not blame this kid at all for fidgeting, messing around, trying to do anything but read aloud to me, because who in the HELL would want to read these things, voluntarily? And yet that was his curriculum.

  30. My philosophy is that so called literature has done a great deal to damage kids willingness to read. From and early age, we send kids messages that some kinds of media aren’t as legitimate as others. I think if a kid likes comic books you should encourage that (but maybe also gradually encouraging more challenging comics, until they are reading graphic novels, and so forth). Or if a kid really likes cars, then let him read a car magazine.

    When we were kids we gave my mom quite a bit of grief over reading romance novels. Eventually she gave up reading altogether. I feel pretty bad about that, and i think now that maybe a romance novel is just as good as anything else. If a kid likes Steven King, or H.G. Wells then who are we to tell them it isn’t as good as Shakespeare?

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge kids, but rather sometimes we should let thier own interests be the guide, and not push them to the kind of “literature” that we want them to read. Even at the age of 1, my daughter already has her favorite books (even if they are only pictures) and although sometimes it may be the flavor rather than the content… I want to encourage her to develop her own favorites, and over time define for herself what constitutes a “good book”.

  31. Cecil and Lonnie make good points about developing a love of reading. (I think the lack of non-fiction books with strong narratives is a huge issue in elementary school school.) And I like what Former Teacher had to say about comprehension. I’ve heard that much of the good phonetic work in K, 1, and 2 crashes against the comprehension gap in 3rd grade and beyond. (Kids in poverty are simply not exposed to the same quantity of words growing up. They are severely undernourished.)

    And add to that what they have to deal with. I opened today’s NYTime and found this editorial:

    Be sure to click on the graphic to the left–it’s printed in the newspaper.

  32. Thank you, Karl. I hope the powers-that-be in the CCS read this NYT editorial, or at least read this blog!

    And thank you, Waldo, for creating the opportunity for public discourse about these critical issues.

  33. This is an interesting article by Hawes Spencer in the Hook
    “What if classroom size, education spending, and even school quality aren’t really important? What if all of a teacher’s fancy degrees and years of service mean nothing? And what if the only truly important predictor of classroom success is something unknowable at the outset of a teacher’s career?

    This is the premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest article in the New Yorker and one which is sure to provoke terror among teachers unaccustomed to objective measures of their abilities.

    One person not terrorized is Robert Pianta. The dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, he plays a starring role in Gladwell’s story, “Most Likely To Succeed,”

  34. I think that being with-it is more necessary at the middle and secondary levels. At these levels, even the hippest, most with-it teacher needs to send badly behaved students from the classroom sometimes. If a badly behaved student or his/her family faces no consequences and, to the contrary receives positive reinforcement from peers (“he’s cool; he told the teacher to get out of his face”), then even the with-it teacher will struggle, especially if said student is back in the teacher’s classroom before the end of the period or is back the next day, reinforced and unrepentant. If this same student is also reading at a very low level, then the student has been doubly damaged by our system: he or she cannot read and is heading out into the work world with all the wrong skills (i.e., bad attitude rather than can-do work ethic).

    The high school students I speak with are always grateful to have a teacher that they connect with and who understands them. However, if they are struggling readers in the 11th grade, then even the with-it teacher is going to ineffectual in developing their reading skills.

    With-it teacher or not, the battle for our students’ minds must be fought early in their lives.

  35. VOD, I would disagree I think the way a child begins their educational experience sets the tone for their whole life and a with-it primary school teacher is critical. But that being said we need to do more to weed out the bad apples throughout the system and reward and train teachers to have the quality Gladwell and Pianta are getting at. I am glad to see the City is giving raises to their teachers, but wish they could be merit based. Notice the county is not giving raises and I fear given the political anti-tax climate in the County that funding for education would fall if the systems were merged

  36. “Withitness” as Pianta defines it is not a measure of hipness. It has to do with how tuned in a teacher is to the unspoken needs of the classroom and how well the teacher can predict needs prior to the inevitable explosion that occurs when needs are not being met.

    Gladwell’s article was certainly very interesting, but does little to solve the problems facing school systems as they recruit right now, since it is more about–in my mind at least–how education schools can effectively weed out people who are unlikely to be good teachers.

    In terms of whether or not ACPS and CCS should merge, it would definitely save money for both systems since there are considerable cost savings that occur when two systems become one.

    However, I would hope that no decisions will be made rashly about education right now as an attempt to solve the short term budget issues in our state. I would hope that any decisions made right now would be made with an eye for the long term best interest of the city, the county and the children we are entrusted to educate.

  37. From reading the article I would define withitness as having an empathetic connection to each individual child and being able to let each child learn in the way that best suits them–not a small order, but one I think we can do a much better job training teachers to do. And then there are just some individuals not suited for teaching who should be weeded out. Mindfulness training would be a good place to start. If the teacher is not aware of her own psychodynamics she will have a difficult time relating to the children she is attempting to teach.

    As to the practicality of the teachers presently in the system I continue to believe there should be a better mechanism for rewarding the good teachers and encouraging the bad ones to leave the system.

    I totally agree merging school systems based solely on cost savings would be a huge mistake for our community

  38. One problem with rewarding “good” teachers, at least in terms of where we are now at a school like CHS, is that some teachers have cushy jobs with high-achieving students who are already motivated, while others are stuck with a very tall order indeed. If you give some poor sap the hardest kids and then pay his peer a bonus for working with the high achievers, then that poor sap won’t be around long.

  39. Good point. Perhaps the schools could work with Pianta to find a fair measure of a teacher’s ability irregardless of the academic level of the students. Or perhaps other systems are already doing this. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel

  40. Keep this conversation going with the man himself…
    I hope that you all will come and hear
    BOB PIANTA speak!
    His topic will be
    “Kids and Teachers: What Makes for Success in Schools”
    Tuesday, February 17
    7 pm
    at our own Venable Elementary School
    free and open to the public
    sponsored by the Venable PTO

  41. This budget issue is not restricted to the state budget crisis. A large chunk of school funding comes from the local level, which is made up almost entirely from property taxes. I am not surprised that the county is having to cut much more deeply than the city because their tax rate is much lower and they therefore cannot absorb a dip in the housing market as easily as the city can.

    Charlottesville is one of the few places in the state that has not seen a major loss in real estate value, so being able to give raises is not a surprise.

    The city has also never funded as much of the insurance premium as the county has for those who have dependents who are receiving insurance. It is possible that the county is doing political maneuvering if insurance costs rise 2.5 percent or more by claiming that they are not giving a raise while absorbing the costs of insurance. The city will likely pass along all increases in insurance costs for dependents while giving a raise in salary. The net effect for teachers with dependents in both systems is likely to be the same…

  42. If you could give your child only ONE of the following, which would it be?

    great teachers
    cutting-edge technology
    innovative curriculum
    great facilities
    a deep desire to learn

    When do we start talking about how to motivate underachieving students of all races and classes–especially poor kids?

  43. “I am not surprised that the county is having to cut much more deeply than the city because their tax rate is much lower and they therefore cannot absorb a dip in the housing market as easily as the city can.” Use hard numbers. The county’s total budget is expected to be less than last year’s, the city’s is not.
    As for the insurance arrangement, I stopped paying attention when the CCS became “self-insure.” I have no idea what plan they have in effect now that they have moved from that program, but I find it difficult to believe that city teachers would allow the county to give its teachers better benefits.
    “Charlottesville is one of the few places in the state that has not seen a major loss in real estate value, so being able to give raises is not a surprise.” There has been a drop in sales prices in residential, which the city underestimates. The city claims there has been a rise in the sales price of commercial, but that figure is about a year old. But it’s raising property assessments anyway.

  44. Scout’s observations in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird seem like an apt description of what is happening with reading in our schools. The teacher’s response rings true for me as well, as a metaphor for the way our school leaders don’t get it that young readers must be nurtured in an entirely different way than they are now.

    “Ms. Caroline began the day by reading us a story about cats. The cats had long conversations with each other, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of Catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the story and said, “Oh, my, wasn’t that nice?””

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