By Brandon Martin
The Henry County School Board unveiled plans to increase employee pay in their new budget during a Feb. 25 joint meeting with the Henry County Board of Supervisors.
Of the additional funds that the schools expect to receive this year, 64 percent is being budgeted to increase the salaries of full-time and part-time staff.
“Knowing that the funding level from the state is going to exceed last year’s funding level, and knowing that our employees’ salaries will only stay competitive if we continue to increase their compensation, we are able to see growth in the budget that we are developing,” said David Scott, who gave the presentation.
According to Scott, 41 percent of the new funds will go to full-time licensed staff. This group includes teachers, librarians, counselors, reading specialists, instructional coaches and anyone that holds a Virginia’s Instruction License and works with the students in the schools on a daily basis.
Seven percent will go to increasing the annual pay of bus drivers and bus driver aides.
Six percent will be allocated for pay increases to classified staff such as bookkeepers, payroll technicians, school nurses and teacher’s aides. An additional six percent will also provide funding for increasing the hourly rates of the employees that work in part-time jobs in instructional settings.
Four percent will go to administrators.
The remaining funds will be spent on insurance, instructional programming and safety costs, with insurance making up 20 percent.
Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer said “we must recruit and retain high quality employees. Our children deserve this. We know that it is critical to continue to offer competitive salaries because our staff members lay the foundation for a stronger Henry County.”
Under the high priority compensation adjustments, Scott said the school system is making an effort to get instructors back to their correct step, or time-in-service increase.
“In some of the lean years we’ve had in the past, we’ve not been able to give steps to these employees and in the past, we’ve kind of broken a promise to our teachers and workforce,” he said. “The promise that each year, they would get an additional step. Because of those lean years, we haven’t always been able to do this.”
One move being considered is an increase of three steps for both full-time licensed and classified staff on their respective scales.
“This year will not erase the discrepancy between their length of service and where they are on the scale; however, three steps this year will make it a practical guarantee that next year, we will be able to eliminate that gap altogether,” he added.
In addition to step increases, the schools are also looking at other avenues for pay increases to employees.
“Our administrators in the current year are receiving a two percent increase. Next year, we’d like to give them another two percent,” he said, adding that bus personnel also are currently getting a five percent increase which the county would “like to give them another 3.5 percent next year to improve their annual salaries.
Other pay increases are on the table as well, such as increases for reading tutors and substitutes. Scott said the current plan allows for an increase in pay to reading tutors reaching $11 an hour. He also said there would be increases in the rates of retired substitute teachers so they will be paid $25 more a day.
“We want to make sure we are getting the cream of the crop as far as substitutes go,” Scott said, with rates for all other substitutes set to increase by $10 a day. There also are plans to increase the rate of homebound instructors to $25 an hour.
During a Board of Supervisors meeting that immediately followed the joint meeting, Henry County Education Association (HCEA) President Dorothy Carter said “tonight, I saw one of the best budget presentations that I’ve seen in several years. I want to tell you that this is a budget that the HCEA can get behind and be supportive of. This is the budget that the workers in the Henry County Public Schools need, and I just want to encourage you to get behind that.”
During the presentation, Scott also discussed staffing plans, which includes an addition of 15 full-time, benefit-eligible bus drivers, six more teaching positions and additional special education paraprofessionals.
“We have funding in the state that is tied to the ratio of students to teachers,” he said. “We want to be able to hire a teacher if the student enrollment warrants it. The addition of one or two teachers could help a tremendous amount when it comes to preserving the funding that the state offers. When we don’t have this issue right, we risk forfeiting hundreds of thousands of dollars. ”
Strayer said that the schools are also looking to add a cyber security teaching position at their Career Academy.
“As we know, it is the way of the future,” she said. “There are tons of jobs available where students can graduate from high school and fill those jobs.”
She said that the Career Academy currently offers classes in cosmetology, HVAC (heating and air), industrial maintenance, as well as an agricultural program. Down the road, she said she hopes to add courses in the health care field.
Another issue that Strayer looks to solve is the amount of staff being paid out of grant funds instead of locally-sourced ones.
“Over the years, we’ve increased the number of people that we are paying out of these grants and every time, there is apprehension from staff members that if a grant gets cut or not funded that they will lose their job because they are funded out of Title I,” she said. “Your length of service does matter. We have to take these positions out of the grants and put them on the local side.”
One ongoing issue that the schools look to address comes in the form of capital improvements.
“We have our sights set on a couple other exciting ventures next. Headlining that list is the kitchen and cafeteria at G.W. Carver Elementary School,” Scott said. “The students, staff, parents, and visitors to that school have patiently and dutifully been using a cafeteria that is frankly too small for the number of students that it serves on a daily basis.”
He also said the school is looking at options for the roof at Laurel Park Middle School, which is about to hit its 20 year mark.
“We know that at that point, it will be outliving its guarantee. We have to keep an eye on that down the road,” he added.
Some relief may come from a bill currently being proposed by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, which would allow the county to receive another percent of their sales tax revenue.
“We currently only receive one percent of our sales tax now,” County Administrator Tim Hall said. “Sales tax goes to the state and they give us our portion of that. We would literally be doubling our income from sales tax. It could be as much as $4-5 million annually for us.”
Hall said that the revenue would go exclusively to school renovation. The bill, similar to one passed by Halifax County last year, has been approved by the General Assembly and is awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.
If signed, the issue would be added to the ballot in November asking voters if they will “vote for increasing sales tax by one percent over a period of 20 years, for construction or renovation for facilities.”
Hall highlighted the positives of the sales tax.
“A sales tax is a user tax, so folks that come through town will help pay for facilities just as they would if they stopped to eat,” he said. “User taxes are always good because people that pass through help pay. We all have to pay the bill. If we can get some guy from out of town to help pay it, that’s even better.”
School Board Member Francis Zehr, of Ridgeway, said “a lot of business comes through from non-Henry County people. Race weekends, and our tourism is way up. You’re getting money from people that don’t live in Henry County.”