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School board makes pitch to council
City schools seek additional funding

Thursday, April 25, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Martinsville School Board members and schools Superintendent Pam Heath made a plea to city council Wednesday night for full funding — $346,546 more than the city manager proposed — for fiscal 2013-14.

Shortly after meeting in a work session with city council in council chambers, the school board held a special meeting downstairs in which, among other things, it decided not to accept a $46,000 one-year grant (a total of $92,000 for two years if it were renewed for a second year) for a reading specialist at Albert Harris Elementary School, because of, as Heath put it, “too many strings are attached.”

The school board, on April 8, unanimously approved on second reading its $21,318,895 general fund budget for fiscal 2013-14. That includes a request for a local appropriation of $6,360,531, an increase over the current fiscal year of $660,531 or nearly 11.6 percent.

City Manager Leon Towarnicki’s proposed budget includes a school appropriation of $6,013,895, an increase of $313,985 (5.5 percent) from FY2013 funding, the budget message says.

“The recommended increase includes $126,394 cut from the FY2013 request, plus and additional $187,591 to cover the General Fund’s prorated contribution to the School Budget for cost increases in health insurance, VRS (additional 1 percent), 3 percent COLA and the 0.4 percent local match of the state’s optional 2 percent increase for SOQ instructional personnel.” VRS stands for Virginia Retirement System; COLA, for cost of living adjustment; and SOQ, (Virginia Department of Education) Standards of Quality.

The budget approved by the school board includes funds to restore six teaching positions. It gives employees 4 percent salary increases to help offset mandated retirement contributions and 1 percent salary increases to help offset a 12.7 percent increase in health insurance rates. It also gives all employees 2 percent salary increases that both offset the 2 percent payroll tax increases that went into effect Jan. 1 and takes advantage of the state’s offer to pay a portion of a 2 percent salary increase SOQ instructional positions (if there is a local match).

School Board Chairman Bill Manning described it as “the most important budget request since I’ve been on the board,” which is about nine years. He thanked council for supporting the school division.

About 80 to 81 percent of the division’s operating budget is for salaries and benefits, he said, adding that the work the school division does is labor intensive.

He and Heath said increasing pay and benefits is critical to retaining and attracting educators because the school division’s pay scale is not competitive and has declined relative to other school divisions in the state.

State rankings show for teachers with bachelor’s degrees, Martinsville’s salaries dropped from 2012 to 2013: from 68th to 86th with no experience, from 70th to 90th with five years of experience, from 97th to 111th with 10 years of experience, from 97th to 115th with 15 years of experience, from 109th to 125th with 20 years of experience, from 118th to 127th with 25 years of experience and from 70th to 99th with 30 years of experience, according to Heath’s budget presentation. Those rankings are among 132 school divisions.

“Research has shown teacher quality is the single most influential factor in student achievement,” she said. “It takes two years for students with ineffective teachers to regain the resulting loss in achievement. If a student has an ineffective teacher for two years in a row, he/she is unlikely to ever catch up.”

Heath also said that some people are going into careers other than education because they can earn more money.

Heath and Manning stressed the importance of public school education in helping develop or developing a skilled work force for this area so that it can retain and attract businesses and prosper. They also said the school division is building a pipeline with Patrick Henry Community College and New College Institute.

“It’s all about the economy,” Heath said. “In this economy what is valued is thinking skills.”

Heath discussed the specifics of the school board’s budget request with council and answered questions.

Among other things, Heath said that adding six teaching positions (at an estimated cost of $348,000) would bring the school division up to minimum staffing levels. She and City Councilman Gene Teague also pointed out that giving the 4 percent salary increase to help offset employee retirement contributions, a 2 percent salary increase for all employees and a 1 percent increase to offset a 12.7 percent in health insurance rates and related expenses would cost about $425,000.

Heath said she believed doing those things would help the school division not only retain and attract educators but increase the division’s chances of meeting state requirements that 100 percent of courses be taught by educators who are licensed to teach those subjects.

She said the Martinsville City Schools has been out of compliance for several years and will be out of compliance again this year because it can’t get all the teachers with credentials that it needs. The highest the school division has ever been is 98.6 percent compliant and that has gone down in recent years. The division has been criticized for not complying by state officials and told, “This is the law,” and that the school division could be taken to court, she said.

Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge asked at one point during the discussion if council increased funding for city schools by 11 percent, would the school division have an 11 percent measurable increase in student performance.

At another point, Hodge raised the idea that the city council fund what it could now and then review the situation after, say, three or six months, and consider whether to fund more if the school division is not in compliance with state regulations.

Manning said, speaking as a businessman, he would rather that city council not provide the additional money the school board requested than the school board being uncertain about funding and having to come back to council periodically to discuss additional funding,

Mayor Kim Adkins asked if the school division has considered reinstating the JROTC program. Heath said that’s on the school division’s wish list, but enrollment was low when the school division ended the program, and there are significant costs.

Heath said the school division can’t cut its budget much more, after a number of years of cuts. “All the big pots have been cut,” she said.

She noted the school board’s request for a local appropriation of $6,360,531 is less than what was appropriated in 2009 “or any time since the turn of the millennium.”

In the school board’s special meeting, which was held in the basement of the Municipal Building, the board decided not to accept a state grant for about $46,000, which potentially could be renewed a second year, mainly because of all the strings attached, but also because the school division already has initiatives under way to address the problem.

The grant was available for an elementary reading specialist for Albert Harris Elementary because less than 75 percent of third-graders passed the reading Standards of Learning test. The pass rate was 72 percent, school division officials said.

To receive the grant, the school division would have to agree that affected third-graders at the school would be exempt from taking the third-grade science and/or history SOL, but the school system still would have to teach the Standards of Learning for those subjects and would have to provide an alternate performance test(s).

Several school division officials said they didn’t want the third-graders to miss out on important test-taking skills or for there to be a public perception that Albert Harris third-graders were being held to a lower standards than their counterparts in the school division.

School officials said Albert Harris already has reading specialists, and there have been schedule changes to provide more time for reading instruction for students reading under grade level, and that the school division has been commended for its initiatives at Albert Harris.

In other business, the school board voted to ask the state board of education to allow it to have the same graduation requirements as the commonwealth. Martinsville schools exceeded the commonwealth’s graduation requirements.

School board and division officials said the commonwealth has been increasing its requirements for graduation, they don’t want to penalize local students by having higher requirements, and that the school division will continue to have high expectations for its students.

The school board also accepted the resignation of Erika Nicholas, who teaches at Martinsville High School, and granted a one-year leave of absence to Chanda Prillaman, who teaches at the middle school, said Lynda Pulliam, clerk to the school board.

School board member the Rev. J. C. Richardson Jr. did not attend the meeting.

After meeting with school officials, the council met with city department heads who gave brief presentations about their operations.

Various department heads voiced concerns about not having adequate resources, including employees, as well as problems in being able to hire employees due to low salaries paid by the city compared with other government entities.


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