County school board inches closer to book policy, considers creating agricultural land lab

The Rockingham County School Board is preparing to release draft policies for library book selection and reviews. It also debated the creation of an agricultural land lab and is crafting its 2024-25 budget, despite uncertainty in the Virginia legislature.

Draft book policies expected at next board meeting

Vice board chair Sara Horst, who’s leading the committee to draft new library policies following the board’s temporary removal of 57 books from school libraries last month, said at Monday’s meeting that she hopes to have draft policies for library book selection and review ready to present as informational items at the next school board meeting on March 11.

Once the drafts are released, Horst said a survey will be sent out to gather community input. The survey will be available for about a week and will give the committee a chance to analyze that data and revise the policies in time for the board to vote on them at its March 25 meeting.

The board held a closed work session last week to discuss these policies with its legal counsel. Horst didn’t disclose any details from that meeting. In the past month, the board has also held two other work sessions to discuss the policymaking process and get input from librarians.

Horst said she originally wanted to have the drafts ready for Monday’s meeting, but she didn’t want to rush the process.

“We’re working as quickly as we can,” Horst said. “We’re just not there yet, and we’d like to take our time with it and make sure we’re doing a good job with it.”

During Monday’s public comment period, Dave Scott, a retired English teacher of 17 years at Spotswood High School, called the school board “anti-educational,” saying the book ban and other policies are “squelching voices and engagement in service of a political agenda.”

“Protecting the voices of oppressed marginalized students was a cornerstone in the foundation of education RCPS. Now, to the great shame of our educational community, we find that the school board itself has become the bullies using all the force and privilege of their offices to further marginalize and oppress those same students,” Scott said. “Shame on the school board for spitting in my face and the face of every educator who works in the classroom to gain the trust and nourish the empathy of all students — even the ones that don’t look like us or talk like us, or pray like us.”

Nathan Musselman, an RCPS father, said when the list of banned books came out, he began to read through them. After hearing how few books are challenged and what avenues already exist for parental rights in this area during the work session with school librarians, he said he wants to understand why the majority of the board thought the books were dangerous and should be removed immediately.

people sitting in auditorium seats facing a table with others
Rockingham County school librarians face the school board at a work session in Spotswood High School earlier this month as they discuss a proposed county-wide policy regarding book selection and curation. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Board to considering agricultural land lab

The school board is also considering the creation of an agricultural land lab: an outdoor space and facility shared by all schools and grades, where the district could host agriculture courses to help students learn about farming.

Career and technical education supervisor Carrie Gray, presenting the proposal on behalf of RCPS’s Agricultural Production Advisory Committee, said Rockingham County is a major agricultural hub for Virginia. The county has generated over $1 billion — almost 22% — of the state’s entire agricultural revenue and over half of farms’ net cash income statewide in 2022. But the average age of farmers is trending older, Gray said, and schools need to educate kids on what it’s like to work in agriculture.

“In order to continue to be a national powerhouse in agricultural production, we do have to ensure that our future generations value agriculture [and] understand the career opportunities available in the agriculture industry,” Gray said. “If they’ve never experienced agriculture, they don’t know what careers might be available to them.”

The proposal calls for the school system identifying and acquiring a centrally located property of at least 35 acres. The land lab would include livestock housing, a multipurpose classroom, storage for equipment and feed, as well as WiFi capabilities. All county middle and high schools have agriculture programs, but Gray said a centralized location would bolster all of them.

Students from all grades would get a chance to learn at the land lab. Proposed courses include:

  • a hands-on sensory experience about where food comes from for K-2 students
  • upper-elementary plant, animal and human nutrition classes that cover hydroponics, seed oil production and basic animal nutrition
  • livestock handling and food processing and safety for middle schoolers
  • and more STEM-focused high-school classes including agriscience fair projects, livestock breeding management, soils analysis and forestry.

To pay for the property, Gray said the division can apply for land conservation grants, which often prioritize applicants with missions of public access and youth outreach. It would also require creating a new RCPS farm manager/program coordinator position to manage the farm.

Amy Funk, a parent of two Broadway High School students, spoke in support of the land lab during the public comment section.

She hosts a goat farm that students visit and said while she’s enjoyed doing that, she thinks a dedicated facility and farm manager is necessary to continue and grow the program. 

Grayson Long, a student involved with multiple RCPS agriculture classes, agreed, saying the responsibility of running the farm shouldn’t fall on teachers.

School officials optimistic about state funding

Justin Moyers, RCPS’s chief financial officer, said in his update on the 2024-25 budget that new state funding changes proposed in the Virginia legislature could help the school district.

At the last meeting, Moyers said Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s initial budget proposal would cut RCPS’s funding by about $4.6 million. Both chambers of the legislature have released their versions since then, and Moyers said the House of Delegates’ version is better for the district and is likely the closest to what might pass.

The House’s version provides an additional $1.8 million to Rockingham County. Most of that would come through a 3% salary increase, rather than the 1% increase the governor proposed. If it passes, RCPS would still need to allocate $600,000 to fully fund the salary increases. This version would also give RCPS an additional $400,000 for its English Language Learning program.

The Senate’s version would bump up the state’s funding of RCPS by $3.3 million even after the 3% salary increase, in large part because that budget seeks to remove the support cap, or the number of school district positions that are funded by the state. This version would also allocate ELL support and funds for at-risk kids, Moyers said.

“No one knows which budget will get passed. It’s more likely to be a compromise between the three,” Moyers said. “Because the House is kind of the middle between the governor’s and the Senate, that’s what we’re expecting at this point.”

Moyers added it’s unlikely that the state budget will be passed before the district’s funding deadline — last year, the General Assembly didn’t finalize its budget until September — meaning RCPS will have to “err on the conservative side” and deal with uncertainty regarding how much state funding it’ll receive.

RCPS Superintendent Larry Shifflet will present the formal budget proposal at the March 11 school board meeting and to the county Board of Supervisors on March 13.

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