County School Board Looks At Next Budget

Salaries, Counseling Top Concerns

Teacher salaries, the need for several new positions and some potentially concerning Average Daily Membership estimates were among the issues discussed at an early budget work session of the Rockbridge County School Board.

The work session on the 2020-21 budget on Oct. 29 followed a public hearing on the budget at which no one spoke.

“We made a good leap in getting our folks back to the middle,” Superintendent Phillip Thompson said of Rockbridge teacher salaries as compared with other salaries in school divisions across Virginia. “But we can’t stop - we have to make sure to continue to be competitive.”

School Board Chair Wendy Lovell called attention to the average teacher salaries over time in Rock-bridge County.

“If I look at these salaries in Rockbridge County, and I see 30 years of experience [rewarded] with $57,000, I’m not dying to get on a career path where I’ve got a less than $20,000 increase in salary over 30 years,” Lovell said. “But I know that it’s a national, not a local issue.”

Thompson offered his thoughts on the reason behind the nationwide teacher shortage.

“Standardized tests and those things have done a number on folks that want to go into teaching,” Thompson said. “I believe in the next five years the vast majority of standardized tests will be gone. The DOE (Department of Education) and folks around the country are starting to realize, you’ve got to talk about deeper learning, and hands-on experiences, and that’s what kids need to learn to be prepared for the 21st century.”

However, he thought that some recent changes - geared toward making it easier for would-be teachers to get the necessary certification - were positive.

After the discussion of recruiting and retaining teachers, the School Board shifted gears to talk about priorities for 2021.

“Number one priority I’ve got right here, I need - and it’s awfully close to a requirement - a counselor in the high school,” Thompson said.

“We’ve seen an increase, not just in Rockbridge County but certainly across the country, with respect to school shootings, suicides, kids who are on medication for depression, [kids] who see counselors, and slowly but surely - right, wrong or indifferent - that’s becoming the norm.”

This year, the minimum requirement for school counselors was raised to one per 300 high school students. RCHS meets that requirement with three counselors for its 980 students, but school officials would like to get back to the four that had staffed the high school, recognizing that students today often require more support and services that are typically delivered through the school counselor’s office.

“Part of me says, the families and parents should bear some of the costs of that, whether it’s the insurance or what not,” Natural Bridge District David Mc-Daniel representative said, referencing payment for another counselor.

“But some of the kids that need it - they can’t even pay for lunch,” South River District representative Corey Berkstresser said.

“To hire a mental health counselor is close to impossible in this area,” Kerrs Creek District representative Heather Hostetter added. She was also doubtful about forms of tele-counseling, where students meet with a counselor via a computer screen.

“If students are in this position,” Hostetter said, “they need to be able to confide and trust the person - how much trust are you going to put in a screen?”

Thompson said that they still need more data on the topic, so that administrators can determine how many students are going to counseling, and what type of resources they are looking for.

Among other hiring priorities for 2021 were an elementary school teacher, an instructional coach (to help teachers build curriculum) and a part-time technology assistant.

Chair Wendy Lovell also brought up the possibility of adding art teachers at the elementary level. Right now, one teacher’s assistant travels between all four elementary schools on different days.

Thompson told The News-Gazette that the Board’s discussion about adding art teachers is ongoing, although they don’t receive complaints the current state of elementary art education.

“But we’re not going to have the interest at the middle or high school level if we’re not nurturing students at the elementary level,” Lovell insisted.

Lastly, the Board also discussed Average Daily Membership numbers, which help determine how much money schools get from the state. The School Board formed its budget around a measurement taken in March. But now, based on the Sept. 30 ADM, the Board is worried that it overshot the number by 24 students. In other words, the schools may be getting less money that they planned to get in the budget.

“I won’t be on the Board by then, but if I was, I would go down to the [Board of Supervisors] and sit in that meeting and say, ‘I need $150,000,’” McDaniel said. “‘You changed our budget, you’re the reason we’re short’.”

McDaniel implied that Board of Supervisors encouraged the School Board to be less conservative with its budget.

“They just have a difference of opinion,” Thompson told the The News-Gazette later. “We’ve always had a conservative [ADM] number, because things like this happen.”

However, Thompson also said that the number that really counts is the ADM that is measured in March 2020.

“We still have some time for those numbers to move up and hopefully they’ll move up,” he said.

The News-Gazette

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