The Virginia Board of Education wants clarification on funding aspects of a plan to merge Alleghany County and Covington schools.

Thursday, the Board of Education gave its first review of the proposal, which was crafted over a two-year period.

Final review is scheduled in January, but the board wants clarification on what will happen if the Virginia General Assembly does not approve funding that will facilitate the merger.

If the funding is not approved, organizers of the merger said the backup plan would be to shelve the proposal until the money is awarded.

“I don’t think the board has an issue with consolidation,” said Chesterfield County resident Daniel Gecker, who serves as the president of the Board of Education.

“I am very curious that if we do this, it’s done, and I’m not sure you can undo this if it’s idle,” Gecker said of the board’s final review slated for January.
Gecker said the board may delay its final review, based on advise it receives from attorneys over the next two months.

In its regular 2019 session, the General Assembly earmarked $582,000 for the  merger plan in the second year of the state’s 2020-2022 biennial budget.  That money was later unallotted by lawmakers due to concerns over the fiscal impact of COVID-19 on the state’s finances.

State support is needed to equalize teacher salaries and benefits in a combined system. Covington teachers are generally paid more than Alleghany County teachers.

In addition, state money would be used to offer an early retirement incentive to school employees to get staffing to optimum level to increase financial efficiencies.

If the General Assembly does not provide the funding, Jonathan Arritt of the Covington School Board said “Plan B” would be to “idle the merger plan until the proper level of support can be secured.”

The prospect of that occurring is what sparked concerns from Gecker during Thursday’s meeting, which was held online via Zoom.

Arritt serves as a member of the Joint School Services Committee that crafted the merger proposal. Arritt and Jacob Wright of the Alleghany County School Board serve as co-chairmen of the committee.

In addition to Arritt and Wright, Alleghany County Administrator Jon Lanford,  Covington City Manager Krystal Onaitis, Covington School Superintendent Melinda Snead-Johnson and Sherman Callahan, acting superintendent of Alleghany County Schools, participated in Thursday’s presentation.

Board of Education member Anne Holton said she was “overwhelmed” by the amount of work that has been put into the merger proposal.

“I recognize that this was not easy and to put the needs of your students above your own personal interests overwhelms me. To me, this seems like a very a strong proposal,” said Holton, who is the wife of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

The merger plan was approved by the governing bodies in Alleghany County and Covington in September.

A telephone poll that followed indicated that 54 percent of people who reside in the city and county are in favor of merging the schools, while 38 percent are opposed.

Arritt said the merger proposal has been an emotional issue for city residents. The Board of Education had received written comments stating opposition to the merger.

“It’s a loss of local identity,” Arritt told the Board of Education. “It’s rooted in continuity and the emotional aspects.”

Covington High School would become a middle school when students would start attending the combined system in 2023. Alleghany High School would be the joint high school.

The existing elementary schools in the county and city would remain in use. Clifton Middle School in Alleghany County is being evaluated by Dabney S. Lancaster Community College for possible uses.

The joint school board would be created on July 1, 2022, with Alleghany County having four members and Covington, three.

The school administrations would also combine in July 2022.

A fiscal study has projected an annual savings of up to $900,000 if the school divisions combine. Those savings would mainly come from eliminating duplicative positions in the central offices.

Dr. Jamelle S. Wilson of Richmond, who serves as vice president of the Board of Education, said she wants more detailed information on how the projected savings will benefit students.

“I am more interested about seeing how children are going to be affected by the work [of the Joint School Services Committee,]” she said.

Earlier in Thursday’s meeting, Arritt noted that the merger would give students greater access to advanced course offerings and classes at Jackson River Technical Center.