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Boost for school employee salaries, maintenance sought / February 22, 2017
Mecklenburg County Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols is asking the Board of Supervisors to support a five percent salary increase for all school employees and an additional 10 percent boost for school maintenance, part of a nearly $52 million budget proposal he unveiled at the Monday night meeting of the School Board.

Nichols’ budget request is nearly $6 million more than the county division received last year, and it does not seek any funds for middle school and high school facilities. The local contribution would be just under $20 million.

Nichols said he is seeking a five percent raise for all school division employees because, across the board, they are the lowest paid in the region and among the lowest paid in the state. Since one of his goals is to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers, Nichols said Mecklenburg needs higher salaries to compete with rival school divisions.

A five percent salary bump will cost Mecklenburg County just over $1.5 million, while a three percent increase comes in at about $1.1 million, Nichols said.

“Assuming none of the other school divisions offer salary increase, a three percent raise will mean that new teachers in Mecklenburg will make more than those in Lunenburg and Brunswick, while a five percent raise means those same teachers will make more than teachers in Lunenburg, Brunswick, and Cumberland counties,” but still near the bottom for salaries in the division, said Nichols.

Nichols’ proposed budget earmarks $33.2 million in instruction, $1.9 million for administration, $4.1 million for pupil transportation, $3.5 million for operations and maintenance, and $2.6 million for technology — for a total of $45.4 million. This does not include the additional funds that come in for textbooks, school lunches, debt service and federal programs, which add up to another $6.3 million.

He also noted that he is not asking for additional administrative personnel. In fact, Nichols is proposing to eliminate one position in technology.

In addition to the need to improve employee compensation, Nichols said the proposed budget increases are being driven by unfunded mandates that he foresees coming from the legislature and from the federal government. The cost of these mandates will exceed the funds provided to pay for them, he said.

One example is his request to hire three staff persons to work with the county’s growing ESL (English as a second language) population. “By our interpretation of federal expectations, we need more support for these students,” said Nichols. “If we were to have an audit, it would be possible that even though we do not have federal funds for those positions, not funding them would mean we would have to take funds from our instructional monies to cover [them].”

He’s also seeking funding for three positions to staff an expanded alternative education program. “Three bills in the [Virginia State] senate and house put limitations on our ability to suspend students for disciplinary infractions. Some say no suspension at all,” Nichols explained. “The one that will most likely pass will include severe limitations. The legislature’s goal is that students who are suspended will get as good an opportunity for an education as those in school.”

Nichols said that while he understands and appreciates the reasoning behind these bills, “the reality is that if a student is not behaving, we do not want to put them back in the classroom with the regular students.” As a result, “we need to come up with an alternative education type of program for those students, either short term or long term, that offers a school environment without returning the students to the same classroom. So there are three positions in instruction that we have added to expand current alternative education program should this bill pass.”

Nichols said the request for 10 percent higher school maintenance funding comes in response to the Board of Supervisors, which has pressed for a school budget that includes adequate funding for ongoing maintenance. “The Board of Supervisors specifically said they were looking for a comprehensive plan, one that included salaries, maintenance of existing facilities and new secondary facilities. Nothing in this budget reflects new buildings, but it does reflect maintenance issues,” Nichols said.

“As you know from our meetings earlier with Brian Dalton who heads the schools’ maintenance department, we have Trane working with us on a long-term plans and goals [to improve the energy performance in the elementary schools] and we will soon be getting some of that data in, but maintenance increases are reflected to some degree in [the proposed budget].”

As part of the budget discussion with trustees, Nichols explained there were potential new sources of revenue for the school division. One such source is included in the budget bill passed by the House of Delegates. The so-called 10-10-10 provision provides additional lottery funding for school divisions with less than 10,000 students that have lost at least 10 percent of their Average Daily Membership (student population) over the past decade. Mecklenburg saw its ADM drop by 11 percent, according to Nichols, making it one of 39 school divisions that satisfy the requirements.

If the House provision becomes part of the final budget, the county school division could receive an additional $239,000 from the state in the upcoming budget year, which begins July 1.

“That’s a little bit more than what the division did not get from the state when they withdrew funding for the two percent salary increase for SOQ teachers,” Nichols said.

Nichols said the school division also could receive additional revenue with the “Tim Tebow” bill that passed the legislature, but on Tuesday Gov. McAuliffe vetoed the measure.

The bill would have allowed home school students to participate in high school athletic programs. In turn, school divisions would have been able to partially boost their Average Daily Memberships, a key factor in calculating the flow of state education funds to local school divisions.

Nichols said the proposed budget reflects the school division’s focus for the 2017-18 academic year: improving employee morale and increasing salaries, retention and recruitment of high quality teachers, school improvement and accreditation, professional development, increased CTE offerings, high school redesign, new secondary school facilities, and maintenance of the elementary schools. The budget also calls for one new bus lease to keep pace with the schedule to replace the aging transportation fleet.

Other budget requests include an anticipated jump in health insurance costs, an approximately two percent VRS increase and an acceleration in payments for certain employee benefits under a hybrid plan.

Nichols commended his finance team of Christy Peffer and Kristy Somerville-Midgette, saying, “This year is quite different from last year when we were having to recreate records and start from scratch.” And despite some financial challenges — including the loss of a promised 2 percent from the state for certain teacher salaries — “we will be in the black at the end of the year.”

The School Board agreed to send the budget to the Board of Supervisors for consideration with the 2017-18 budget cycle. The current budget runs out on June 30, with the new fiscal year starting July 1.

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