School system, groups request funds

Published 11:11 pm Tuesday, April 20, 2021

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The Southampton County Board of Supervisors met virtually April 14 to receive comments and presentations from various departments and organizations requesting funding from the county for fiscal year 2022.

A majority of the budget work session involved the presentation by Southampton County Public Schools and questions from supervisors for the school system’s representatives.

Division Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn Shannon highlighted how during this past year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the school system helped not only its students and their families but also other members of the community by providing masks and meals. The division also helped hospitals by providing them with Lysol and cleaning supplies.

She noted the school system ensured continuity of learning with CARES Act funding, providing students with technology to facilitate the learning process outside of school grounds.

Joy Carr, director of finance for Southampton County Public Schools, told the Board of Supervisors that in order to balance the division’s proposed budget, it would need an 8.71% increase in local funds, which translates to a little more than $1.1 million.

She said the fiscal year 2021 school budget is at $36,021,477, and the proposed fiscal year 2022 school budget is at $37,768,504, representing an increase of $1,747,027.

Based on the General Assembly’s adopted budget, sales tax is estimated to decrease by $8,096, she noted. State funds are estimated to increase by $802,399.

“These funds are based on an average daily membership of 2,424 students,” Carr said. “Our federal funds are expected to decrease by $184,004. Other funds received from tuition of non-resident students are budgeted to remain the same.”

Carr then shared with supervisors the salary increase trend for school employees over the last eight years.

“Please note that when we get back to the current year that there was no overall increase given, although the teachers did move up one step on the teacher scale, which provided a small increase for some but not all,” she said. “We are proposing a 5% overall increase for all of our employees for the FY 22 school year. The General Assembly’s approved budget provides state funding to help support the 5% increase.

“Also included in the General Assembly’s budget is funding to hire specialized student support positions, such as social workers, psychologists and school nurses,” she added.

Shannon discussed the school system’s personnel needs.

She said Capron Elementary School needs another third-grade teacher to help reduce class size. New accreditation standards are necessitating the addition of a guidance counselor at Riverdale Elementary School. The student-to-teacher ratio at Southampton High School in math classes means a math teacher needs to be added.

Also at the high school, the school division would like to add a career and technical education teacher who Shannon said could help encourage students to go into education and ultimately enable the school system to grow its own teaching staff locally.

She stated that because of the number of devices and the number of varied technology needs students, families and teachers have now, the school division is in need of an additional elementary instructional technology resource teacher to assist them.

Southampton County Public Schools is also in need of two content area specialists to work in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Shannon said. In their specialized areas, they will help to train and mentor as well as monitor new teachers.

Each of the positions listed above would involve an annual salary of $48,109.

Shannon also said Riverdale needs an in-school intervention facilitator because the school system is trying to curtail some of the unwanted behavior of some of its students prior to placing them in an alternative setting. This facilitator would be paid $20,500.

Lately, Shannon stated, Nottoway Elementary School needs an additional paraprofessional due to increased class sizes. This paraprofessional would be paid $15,000.

Accompanying benefits for the aforementioned personnel would come with a $231,650 price tag, the superintendent said.

In terms of instructional needs, Shannon said that division-wide, the proposed school budget asks for $49,078 for technology, equipment and travel to pay for equipment not covered by state funding, $40,000 for college credit reimbursement, $35,950 for instructional programs to assist with teaching and $25,000 for staff development.

For athletics at Southampton High School and Southampton Middle School, $56,700 is requested, and Shannon added that because dual enrollment/dual credit has increased, the proposed school budget calls for $16,750 more for Southampton High School.

Shannon said that in terms of operational needs, the school system is asking for $95,000 to address division-wide projected increases in repairs, maintenance and supplies. The proposed budget also calls for $80,000 to be used for mulch or the rubberized material that is necessary for the division’s playgrounds and $20,000 for cleaning the exterior of the school as well as painting and powerwashing.

Capron District Supervisor and Board Vice Chair William Hart Gillette said that looking at what the school system had spent as of March 21, it appeared that year-end, there would possibly be a windfall left over.

“I’m wondering, would you be willing to split that with us?” he said. “If you do, what we’re proposing this year along with that would, I believe, achieve your budgetary request.”

Carr cautioned against making firm decisions because there are expenditures yet to be made and numbers yet to be known.

“We purchase a great number of our programs at the end of the year for the upcoming year; we invoice for those in the months of May and June, so a lot of our software programs and all are paid out at the end of the year,” she said. “And also we had an enrollment loss, and we’re waiting to get our final numbers from the state revenue, so we may have to make adjustments there on the revenue side also. So it’s very difficult at this time for someone to just look at what we’ve spent so far and try to estimate, when we have to pay our 10-month employees through the end of August.”

Gillette also wanted to know if the school division had gleaned any information from other school systems across the commonwealth that will help Southampton County Public Schools create efficiencies and streamline operations moving forward through statistics and data-based decision-making amid the continuing pandemic.

“I honestly think that we are operating very efficiently currently,” Shannon said. “However, we do communicate with our Region 2 superintendent as well as other superintendents throughout the commonwealth and throughout the nation.”

She said that nationwide, Southampton County Public Schools is on par with other systems and even ahead of some, but she added it is rare to find one that is much more ahead than another.

“The major difference right now is that some school divisions are back in person five days a week, and we are back in person right now two days a week, and we are moving to four days a week,” she said, referring to the move happening April 26. “But a lot of that is contingent upon the community and just what their community spread is, what their numbers are and just how they have chosen to navigate this pandemic.”

She said she and her administrative team are consulting statistical data to make decisions.

Jerusalem District Supervisor and Board Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards noted a goal Shannon had identified was improving employee retention, and he asked if the school system was having difficulty with that.

“I don’t think that we’re having any more trouble than any other school division,” she said. “We lose staff every year, and we gain staff every year. A lot of our staff members are leaving to go to Isle of Wight, who pays at least $10,000 more than we pay. We have others who are leaving to go to Suffolk who pays about the same as far as an increase, about $10,000 more. And as they are leaving, they are citing those reasons as (why they’re) leaving.”

She said other staffers have retired.

Edwards asked for a copy of the list of teacher pay step increases.

“Because I’ve talked to a lot of teachers that have been there for 20 years, and they tell me they have not ever gotten a step increase,” he said.

Saying she knows that is simply not true, Shannon asked Carr to speak to that.

After describing some of the unusual nature of this current budget year, Carr referenced the division’s teacher pay scale.

“The teachers moved up one step on the scale, and some of them got maybe a half a percent — there’s not much difference between the steps — but they did actually move up one step on the scale, and so we’ll be glad to provide you with a copy of that teacher scale,” she said. “But every year, we have a teacher scale.”

Edwards also said he heard from spring sports coaches who said their stipends have been cut to 60% of what they have been in former years, and he asked what is being done with the 40% saved.

Carr said because the division had a loss in student average daily membership, that money may go to help offset the corresponding loss in state revenue.

Edwards asked why the money does not stay in the athletic department, and Carr and Shannon both indicated this could be considered and discussed with the school board.

Four other organizations and the commonwealth’s attorney also made presentations at the April 14 budget work session.

Lorraine Greene Whitehead, executive director of Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater, said the organization would like to ask for the county’s continued support for its program as it works together with the parents, early child care providers, schools and the community to raise area children out of poverty.

“County early child care providers and staff, both public and private, are required to attend at least 50 hours of training a year,” she said. “Smart Beginnings provides this training, which not only helps to keep the cost of day care down in the county, it increases the quality of instruction in adult-child interactions in the centers, increasing our children’s kindergarten readiness. We also help the centers to maintain licensure and Virginia quality ratings.”

Steve Zollos, CEO of Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, noted his organization serves older adults in the county through everything from transportation to home health options and counseling. Senior Services delivered more than three times the meals to home-bound seniors this year than in previous years and also taught seniors how to use technology to stay healthy, active and engaged.

“We are asking for $10,100 of support,” Zollos said. “What we commit to do — we bring $284,000 to the county through our Older American Act funds, and there’s a requirement to bring that amount of funding to the county that we provide a matching fund of $51,000. What we’re asking the county to do is provide the $10,100, and Senior Services is committing to raise the remaining dollars, the $39,000-plus, to get that match so that we can bring the full $284,000 in programs and services to the county.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric A. Cooke briefly shared some of the needs and challenges of the Southampton County Courthouse, first stating that the first jury in a year would be meeting, under COVID protocols, that next week. He said he and staff are now facing a significant backup in the courts that will be present this year and beyond.

“The other thing that we’ve had, which is really a sea change, is the General Assembly has taken away the disincentive for criminal defendants to ask for a jury, so that means that we will have a significant increase in requests for juries, despite the fact that we will have the complications of not just the pandemic but the courthouse move,” he said. “With one courtroom, arguably two, that might be equipped for a jury, many, many of our cases will have to be tried with the jury despite the lack of resources, and that is going to be what’s happening statewide. So we’ll be adjusting to all of that in the coming year as well.”

Cooke indicated he will need to fill two attorney spots this summer with the departure of Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Christopher M. Bell and also the need for someone in the statute-mandated, body-worn camera position, handling the inundation of footage the office is receiving.

Southampton County Fire and Rescue Association President Carl Garner said he and association leadership had already had a very productive meeting with the Board of Supervisors’ budget committee prior to the budget work session.

“We were very pleased with what’s been put in the initial budget for us,” he said. “Like always, we will continue to be here for the citizens of this county providing the service that we provide, and we thank you for your continued support.”

Under the line item “Fire Association Contribution” in the initial draft budget, the amount proposed for fiscal year 2022 is $13,064.

Blackwater Regional Library Director Ben Neal also made a brief presentation, noting libraries in the area adapted to the pandemic, emphasizing take-home programs, curbside service and expanding e-books and e-video collections people could access from home. Through the library system’s in-house computers, its free 24/7 Wi-Fi access and the free Wi-Fi hot spots it circulated to the community, it helped more than 4,000 county citizens connect to technology.

He indicated the library system is continuing events or material drop-offs in communities like Ivor and Courtland and is planning outdoor programming this spring and summer.

“Our request this year is $273,000, which is actually about $4,000 less than it was last year,” he said. “We did a flat budget this year.”

The Board of Supervisors meets virtually for another budget work session April 21 at 6:30 p.m.