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Herndon: Much progress on efficiency recommendations

SoVaNow.com / January 28, 2013
Nearly a year after the completion of a school efficiency study that highlighted 122 ways to improve operations at local schools, “not everything has been done,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Merle Herndon, “but a lot has been done.”

Herndon spent some two hours going over operational changes to the Halifax County Public Schools during a meeting Friday morning with county supervisors. The efficiency study, completed by Prismatic Services, Inc. in March and released the following month, pointed to potential savings of millions on school division operating costs — including $2.75 million annually from closing two of the county’s small elementaries.

In her follow-up report to the supervisors, Herndon touched on a number of reforms taken in the aftermath of the study, including a reorganization of the HCPS Central Office, a review of teacher work loads and trims to the custodial, maintenance and food services departments.

As for shuttering two schools — perhaps the most controversial recommendation of the study — Herndon said such a move would require time, careful study and community input if the School Board decides it is necessary. The trustees have been non-committal on the idea, and Herndon said it would require thoughtful consideration to avoid “unintended consequences.”

However, lesser steps to streamline operations have already taken place, said Herndon. In her remarks to supervisors she highlighted several areas of change:

A new program provided by the Virginia Department of Education, INDISTAR, is being used at all schools to measure student progress throughout the division.

The Central Office has been restructured to include instructional technology, professional development, accountability and student services lead positions.

Updated job descriptions are being developed and the responsibilities of each school employee will be published, she said. Also, each personnel file is being reviewed to determine the correct years of experience and salary level of employees.

“We are going to be fair to every individual,” she stressed.

Analyzing class sizes and the impact that has on staffing needs is also being addressed, Herndon said. She noted that teacher loads vary according to K-3 initiatives.

Also, said Herndon, the county division has been able to reduce custodial staff by 5.4 positions, for an average of one full-time custodian per 18,929 square foot and a savings of $142,922 annually.

Another $54,279 has been saved by the elimination of one position in the maintenance department.

The food service department is in the process of developing a manual that identifies performance standards and expectations. But Herndon noted that food services has to break even: “We can no longer allow students to charge their meals in excess of $5,” she said, noting that over the years, charges for meals of up to $40 to $50 had been allowed to accumulate, with much of that money never recovered.

Other operational changes are undergoing review, said Herndon, and the administration has rejected some as impractical. Herndon pointed to several areas where further study is needed:

Out-of-zone attendance will be carefully considered at the beginning of the 2013-14 school session to determine if positions must be added to accommodate those requests.

The Prismatic recommendation to hire a business manager has not been addressed since new Finance Director Jay Camp wants to evaluate existing positions before making any changes.

Also, a full-time router for the transportation department has not been hired since Director of Transportation David Guill does not think the position is necessary, said Herndon. Instead, the division will use the money it would otherwise spend on the move and apply it towards the replacement of older school buses — an upgrade estimated to cost $800,000 annually.

Hiring more mechanics also is a higher priority for the transportation department, added Herndon.

Another Prismatic recommendation — staggering school opening times to allow for dual bus routes, thus cutting down on the number of buses needed — has been undertaken at South Boston Elementary School, but not at the county’s six other elementar schools, where the mileage covered by the buses is much greater.

In reviewing the curriculum audit also conducted last year for the school division, Herndon said she wants input from the community before moving forward with possible reforms.

She told the supervisors that she has met with staff, teachers and business and community leaders numerous times to discuss aspects of the school curriculum and HCPS’s focus on developing career paths for students. She stressed that classes should address the needs of those headed to college as well as those who want to get a job when they graduate from high school. “We want them to be able to get a job, whether it be in welding or laying dry wall.”

She was questioned by supervisors about the high number of special education students in Halifax County. “We’re monitoring all those,” she said to try to determine if HCPS can come up with instructional alternatives.

She also noted that the Central Office has put out a request for competitive bids on health insurance.

Herndon was also questioned about school security measures. She said the issue is drawing close scrutiny from her office as well as by local law enforcement officers.

ED-1 supervisor J. T. Davis said he applauded the School Board for what it has been doing. “I think they have made some tough decisions, but the School Board has looked to see if it’s in the best interest of the kids and while it may be tough on one group, we have to spend the money on the kids.”

Clearly referring to the recent suit brought by former teachers to reverse the cancellation of the Local Option Retirement Plan (LORP), Davis said, “hopefully those problems will soon be lifted.”

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Cutting salaries? I hope that the BOS sees through her smoke and mirrors. "Use money to hire a router to buy buses"? These political heads make me sick. You never had more money, if you had the money to hire the router, then you had the money to buy the buses. It is time for everyone to start going to these meetings and making the elected people do what we elected them for, if they don't vote them out! OH that's right, the commnon people are too busy trying to feed their famlies to take time off to go to the meetings.


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