City schools prepare budget as unfunded mandates pile up

By Brandon Martin

As Martinsville City Public Schools notches academic successes, Schools Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley Jr., is calling for more state assistance on unfunded mandates that forced the division to make staffing concessions in this year’s budget.

“We are going to get mandates. We already know they are coming from the VDOE (Virginia Department of Education) on special education,” Talley said. “I’m not saying that they might not put the money in. I’m hoping we get a percentage of it, if not all of the salary for counselors.”

In deliberations over the budget, Talley said the division couldn’t fill teaching vacancies due to financial considerations of items potentially required by the state.

“We had to go back, look and say, ‘what is it that we really need,’” Talley said. “We know that we have some mandated things but what are some of the things that we can really adjust? We want to adjust the raise. We want to request that step increase to make sure that teachers get money into their pockets. We cut it down to two special education teachers and then one regular teacher. Counselors, they are going to be, we think, mandated. The nurse is going to be mandated.”

Cost vs Cash

The division’s proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2022 amounts to $22,980,447 which is an increase of about $1.1 million from the previous year. The estimated expenditures are balanced, with projected revenues of $15.7 million anticipated from state entitlements, $6.5 million in local funds, and approximately $600,000 in other funds. Overall, the school division is requesting $537,014 in additional funds, primarily to support instructional technology and instruction.

This year’s budget calls for $17.5 million to cover instruction costs, an increase of $924,998 from last year. Another $1.5 million would go towards administrative and health costs. This is also an $86,240 increase from last year. Increases in transportation and maintenance accounted for the rest of the overall $1.1 million differential.

Approximately 70 percent of the expenses are for instruction, with maintenance and operations the second largest category.

The largest amount of revenue will come from the state, which is responsible for 56 percent of funds reflected in the budget. The proposed budget includes $12.8 million in state funds, an increase of $477,247 from last year. Local funds comprise another 29 percent of revenues, with the schools preparing for a $537,014 boost from the previous year.

Based on numbers from the General Assembly’s special session, the division originally forecast a decrease of $71,662 for state sales tax.

Talley said the division more recently learned that sales tax had increased this year.

“Sales tax and tax revenue are actually up,” he said. “It was nowhere near as devastating as we thought it would be. Gov. (Ralph) Northam and the General Assembly, supposedly, have to go revisit that so there will not be deep cuts. The more money we get from that, the less we have to rely on local funds.”

The Balancing Act

The largest primary cost for the school division would be a two percent raise for employees.

“We actually had this in before it was ever proposed. We were going to propose it. Why? Because we feel like our teachers do an excellent job,” Talley said.

When the salaries of teachers from Northern Virginia are discounted, Talley said the Commonwealth “is in the lowest five states in the nation in pay.

“I was astounded with that,” he said. “I had no idea if you just took Fairfax County out, the largest county out, that we rank in the lowest five. Gov. (Ralph) Northam is thinking about making that (the raise) permanent. “

The division is requesting $298,898 to cover the raise. Other requests are $64,304 for a step increase for all employees; $132,752 for two special education teachers; $35,100 for eRate; $132,752 for two counselors; $49,458 for a nurse; and $75,053 for other salary and benefit adjustments.

Some requests weren’t reflected in the final proposal, with individual schools calling for two additional teachers and another special education teacher.

Among the requests from the schools were a school counselor at Patrick Henry Elementary School ($66,376); a special education teacher, paraprofessionals, and school counselor at Albert Harris Elementary School ($159,923); a special education and English teacher at Martinsville Middle School ($132,752); and teachers for special education, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), and drama at the high school ($199,128).

“The state was audited for special (education) and Virginia has been challenged by the federal government to upgrade its special (education) standards. You see special education teachers there (the budget) several times. One of the things we are hoping the governor will put back in the budget is some money for school counselors. We are trying to get ahead of the curve and put those things in place.”

The overall division-level requests amounted to $199,458. At this level, transportation is requesting the replacement of two school buses which would cost $150,000 to maintain an up-to-date fleet.

Talley said Northam has proposed that every school in Virginia have a nurse to respond to the pandemic. In preparation, the division has requested $49,458 to accompany state expectations.

“They (the state) are requesting these things but at this point we don’t know how much money they are going to pay,” Talley said. “Every school is going to be asked to have at least one nurse on call.”

Travis Clemmons, executive director of administrative services, discussed capital improvement projects.

Items deemed necessary are a roof repair ($51,150), handicap elevator repair ($35,746), and chiller replacement ($184,366) at Albert Harris Elementary School; pipe rehabilitation and lot repair ($51,040) and culvert repair ($51,040) at Druid Hills; and bus replacements ($160,000).

Clemmons said the largest item – the chiller replacement – could be tabled based on the cost value of addressing smaller items on the overall list.

Rewarding Successes

In contrast to available funds from the state, Talley noted the division’s recent successes in the face of adversity.

“Being here 43 years, I remember when it wasn’t successful, but we’ve done all we can to keep all of our schools accredited,” Talley said. “We are having our schools continue to be recognized by the Virginia Board of Education as Exemplar Schools. We had three schools in one year to do that, which is unheard of in this region. This is our long walk from now being four years in a row accredited, after not being accredited for the past five. Accreditation has been waived at this time, but we will still measure accreditation. We will still be giving SOLs. We will still hold ourselves to that standard. We are not going to lower our bar.”

Talley also noted other accomplishments, such as the middle school robotics team “Absolute Zero” finishing top five in the world competition, interviewing on national radio for “Equity and Schools in Poverty,” and presenting statewide and nationally through webinars.

“People are very curious. We’ve been remote ever since the school year started and looking at our assessments, we are having success,” Talley said. “We don’t have a third of our students failing like they do across the nation. I attribute that to outstanding teachers, parent support and  student support.”

Talley praised the division’s ability to retain staff members, adding that the division only lost “one or two” during the pandemic and teacher shortage.

“Teachers love to teach here,” he said. “They expect enrollment that we had is up, at one time up to 100 more students. Parents love to send their students here. We just want to keep moving forward.”

The division currently projects that total enrollment for next year will be 1,905 students, including K-12, preschool and adult education.

“I remember we were losing 100 students per year at one time but that stopped,” Talley said. “We appreciate the fact that our parents entrust us. We are above what was projected, and we look to steadily increase that.”

In other matters, the school board:

*Received an update from Sheliah Williams, director of school nutrition, on the “No Kid Hungry” grant. She said the division received a $21,000 grant this year. The funds will support the ongoing nutrition program by purchasing “additional equipment for meal service and storage,” according to Williams.

The items consist of a beverage-holding refrigerator, food carriers, dollies, food tents for curbside service, and banquet tables.

Williams said the division continues to serve more than 800 students per delivery for an average of 3,200 meals each delivery day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The meals cover breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and a Saturday meal.

“A huge shout out to the Transportation Department because none of this would be possible without them,” Williams said, and added the Clearview Early Learning Center also received a $960 grant for books through the Community Impact Fund.

*Received an update from Dr. Tamra Vaughan on the Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports (VTSS)/Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) grant for $25,000 to be used for training, any necessary travel, registration, and materials such as signs, notebooks, studies, and incentives.

“We began with this five years ago and the reason that we introduced it to the division is to help reduce the number of office referrals and suspensions, especially with our SPED (special education) students,” Vaughan said. “Albert Harris started as our pilot school and now it is branching off to all the other schools.”

She said there are PBIS teams in every school that help guide decision making based on data.

“We have created a data dashboard that looks at things like attendance for the division, referrals, suspensions, and placements of students. We are monitoring that monthly,” she said. “We started with attendance specifically because we wanted to make sure we were within state guidelines for accreditation. We found areas of need so once we have decided those, we walk through a decision-making process that helps us identify what the data is telling us, what our current situation is, what we would like it to look like, and what action plan steps we need to make it there.”

Vaughan said that “school specific expectations” will be developed to guide students on acceptable behaviors on the bus and in the cafeteria and hallways. Lesson plans will also be used to teach those expectations.

A task force also was created to develop social and emotional learning (SEL) for students, a

“virtual check-up for students so we know where they are now and see how they are handling the virtual learning,” Vaughan said. “We have been able to connect several students, through this survey, with counselors that we may not have known needed that connection before now.”

Data is reviewed monthly and “even bi-monthly lately,” to monitor changes in trends from check-ups.

“We are in the process of developing a plan to support staff. We have found that the staff has needs right now also,” Vaughan added. “It’s been a very traumatic time for them, and we want to make sure they are taken care of.”

Assessments will be developed to help staff create “self-care” plans.

“We all know if you don’t take care of yourself first then you can’t take care of others,” she said, comparing it to airline procedures for donning oxygen masks.

*Approved the 2021-2022 Academic Calendar. The next school year is slated to begin on Aug. 9 and end on May 20, 2022.

more recommended stories