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Fund needs heard
City schools appeal to council

Friday, April 11, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Martinsville City Council on Thursday made no commitment to fulfill a request by the city schools for more funding in the coming fiscal year.

As part of a fiscal 2015 budget it adopted earlier this week, the Martinsville School Board is seeking $6,936,601 in operating funds from the city. That is an increase of $576,070 — or 9 percent — over the current fiscal year.

The school board also is requesting another $160,000 to replace a regular school bus and a special education bus.

However, the city’s proposed budget includes level funding of $6,360,531 for the schools. That is $736,070 less (adding the increase and vehicle replacement costs) than what they ultimately sought.

But the schools would be allowed to reappropriate up to $160,000 unspent in the current fiscal year to cover capital needs and new buses, City Manager Leon Towarnicki has said.

The new fiscal year will start July 1.

Schools officials outlined some of their spending plans during the council’s budget work session on Thursday.

The schools’ budget proposal funds 11 new employees, including eight teachers and three teachers’ aides. Most would work in special education because the number of students in that program has increased in recent years, according to school Superintendent Pam Heath.

Paulette Simington, executive director of special education and student services, said the Martinsville schools have lost more than $134,000 in federal special education funds during the past three years.

Yet the number of special education students increased from 276 to about 300 during the period, Simington said.

Seven of the requested positions stem from state mandates.

“We’re very strictly bound by state and federal laws” in terms of how pupils are taught, Heath said.

Councilman Mark Stroud said “one of our biggest problems” are federal and state mandates that are not accompanied by funding.

“It’s a shame. It’s a travesty,” Stroud said. “It puts everybody in the hole” financially.

The schools’ budget includes developing a “transitional day program” that would have one teacher. The program would serve elementary students with bad behavior and other problems that need to be corrected but who do not need to be in special education, Heath said.

Until their problems are corrected, she said, the students should not be in regular classes because they would disrupt other pupils’ learning.

Currently, in-school and out-of-school suspensions are the only way to deal with such students, and Heath thinks both are not effective.

For instance, she said, “you cannot just take a first-grader out of school for 20 days and expect them to learn to read ... at grade level.”

Simington said she thinks the transitional program would serve up to five students at a time. They would be taught social skills alongside their regular lessons until they are determined to be ready to re-enter regular classes, she said.

Also proposed is reinstating a JROTC program at Martinsville High School (MHS) at an estimated cost of $150,000, including hiring a teacher.

JROTC was discontinued several years ago due to budget cuts.

School board member Carolyn McCraw, a retired teacher at MHS, said she used to see students who greatly benefited by being in JROTC.

Some corrected bad behavior and wore their uniforms proudly, McCraw said. The experience helped others enter the military and receive higher education that they would not have been able to afford in civilian life, she said.

Council members indicated they wanted to find out more about the schools’ financial situation before deciding how much local funding to provide.

Based on information that the council received from Heath, Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge said, for instance, “we don’t know what you already have in the budget that is not mandated” and could possibly be cut.

Heath maintained that the schools need everything they have, plus what is proposed to be funded, to provide students the education they need to get modern jobs after they graduate.

Executives with local companies have told her they need workers who are skilled in science, technology, engineering and math and have critical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork abilities, she said.

“Our community is competing globally” to attract companies, she said, and students will be competing with their peers around the world for future jobs “whether we want to admit it or not.”

Jobs are available now for area residents with the required skills, according to Heath.

“It’s not that we have a lack of jobs,” she said. “We have a skills gap” and if it continues, companies will leave the community, she added.

Other highlights of the council’s budget work session will be reported in the Martinsville Bulletin on Sunday.


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