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Mecklenburg trustees accept budget with pay increases cut out

SoVaNow.com / June 03, 2020

On a split vote Thursday, the Mecklenburg County School Board approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that nixes proposed pay increases for teachers and other school staff.

Trustees reluctantly agreed to a fiscal year 2020-21 budget that the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors had early adopted as part of the overall county budget. The $57,656,068 operating budget was $1,336,673 less than what the School Board had sought. With the funding reduction by supervisors, the trustees set aside plans to provide step salary increases or a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and other school division staff.

The school budget also includes capital expenditures of $72.4 million for the county’s consolidated secondary school project in Baskerville, for an overall budget of $130,050,058.

Voting against the package were Wanda Bailey, chairman Gavin Honeycutt and Lindell Palmer. Honeycutt said he opposed the budget because it did not include money for the step increases promised to school employees last year. Honeycutt said he realized his vote would not change the school budget outcome, but felt it was important to send a message that Mecklenburg County needs to find a way to pay its good teachers a reasonable salary and keep the promises it makes.

Bailey and Palmer offered no reasons for their “no” votes, nor did the six who voted in favor — Brent Richey, Gloria Smith, Rob Campbell, Dora Garner, Ricky Allgood and Glenn Edwards — chime in with remarks.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said that in lieu of pay raises and step increases, he and Finance Director Christy Pfeffer reworked the numbers and found an additional $318,000 to cover an increase in health insurance costs for school division employees. Nichols said insurance premiums for the school division were increasing by 12 percent starting July 1. The initial plan was for the division to pay one-half of the increase and for policy participants to pay the other half.

Nichols said plan participants would still have to pay most of their premium costs, but the school division would cover the entire 12 percent increase.

In other business, Nichols withdrew a request to modify the 4x4 block schedule used by the high school students for the coming school year. Under the 4x4 block, students take four 90-minute classes every day and finish a course in one semester rather a full school year.

Anticipating a delay to the start of the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and explaining there would be a greater need for review at the start, Nichols had proposed a modification to the schedule from a 4x4 block to an A/B schedule. With an “A/B” or “alternating-day” schedule, students take eight 90-minute classes that meet every other day. Nichols said the A/B schedule would allow students to fulfill the learning expectations set by the Virginia Department of Education without extending the school year into June or eliminating planned breaks even with a delayed start.

After speaking with teachers, Nichols said he would not pursue a schedule change at this time. Instead, teachers asked him to modify the school calendar so that the first semester would not end before the Christmas break, as it currently does.

According to Nichols, teachers also have expressed that the scheduled change is too great of a burden to place on students and teachers who may have to start the new school year using virtual learning programs. Nichols said teachers felt that if a distance learning period must occur, it would be best suited for “make-up learning and handling any social and emotional issues” that students experienced from the truncated 2019-20 school year.

Garner pointed out that extending the first semester into January would cut into students’ Christmas and Easter vacations or extend the school year into June. She said she favored the A/B or Alternating Day schedule even after Nichols assured her that no planned vacations would be impacted.

Richey asked if the work students complete under a distance learning program would count as instructional time. He was assured it would.

Bailey said she favored keeping the 4x4 schedule because she would rather have students focus on four classes instead of eight, should schools be forced to close again due to the pandemic and move to online classes.

“We are going to a lot of trouble to train teachers on virtual learning and we don’t know what is going to happen, but we have to be prepared as a division,” said Bailey. “We can’t just go on vacation if we get sent home again. We have to find ways to continue to provide content. Or it will put out students at a disadvantage, if we get sent home.”

Honeycutt did not weigh in on whether there should be a 4x4 schedule or an A/B schedule. He sought assurances that “when the unknown happens, our division will have a plan in place, and everyone will know what is needed to be done and how to accomplish that end.” Nichols assured him the division would be ready.

Campbell and Honeycutt also shared their concerns that seniors at Park View High School were deprived of the chance to participate in an awards ceremony, while Bluestone held its senior awards program. Nichols said he left it up to school principals to decide how best to present students with their awards and scholarships. Nichols said he was not been consulted about either school’s plans.

Richey weighed in, saying the school division as a whole should not involve itself in such matters.

“We need to be careful in the whole idea about equality. We can’t pull one group down to push another up for whatever reason,” Richey said. He added that school principals need to have a certain amount of autonomy and their decisions, if reasonable, should not be second-guessed by the School Board or the superintendent.

Honeycutt expressed disagreement, reminding the board that it was decided “that there would be no ceremonies due to the COVID-19 [pandemic]. Here’s the problem [with the awards ceremony at Bluestone High School on May 28], there was no social distancing, no masks were worn, and the students were all lined up together. We need to set ourselves up to a higher standard.”

He then admonished Nichols: “You had an opportunity to nix that.” Nichols again said he had no prior knowledge of the event.

Richey countered, “We need to allow building principals to have autonomy and if they choose to be different that’s their right. It should not all be up to Paul. I’m okay with difference. We have to allow principals to make decisions. We don’t get involved from up here. Everyone is doing the best they can. As a parent and board member I think they have done a very good job and we should recognize them for that.”

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