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Council, board hold joint meeting

City Council and School Board members talked budget priorities, teacher salaries and a new alternative program during a joint meeting on Wednesday.

The school system will need about $2 million extra starting next year to run two new school buildings, Florence Bowser Elementary School and Col. Fred Cherry Middle School.

Because one school is a replacement of a former building and the other is intended to relieve severe overcrowding at John Yeates Middle School, they won’t require as much extra money as they would otherwise.

A total of 24.5 new positions will be required for the new middle school, Finance Director Wendy Forsman said. Some positions needed for the school are already in place at John Yeates.

Only three additional custodians are needed for Florence Bowser, as it is a much larger building than the former school.

The total increase for additional staff will cost $1.3 million, Forsman said.

Utilities, maintenance and insurance for the new buildings bring the total needed to $2 million.

Add to that additional money a raise needed for teachers and other staff, Forsman said. A 3-percent raise would cost $3.6 million, for example, she said.

Forsman said raises given in recent years were mirrored by other school divisions, meaning Suffolk Public Schools is still lagging behind neighbors that compete for the best teachers.

“We’ve not made a whole lot of progress as far as pulling our pay scale to the middle of the region,” Forsman said. “We still rank 10th out of 11 for Region II.”

Money isn’t everything, though, as Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney pointed out.

“While salary is on the list, there are other issues too,” he said. “All of those issues we need to address.”

He said the system has made progress on items teachers said increased their workload. The system has decreased the number of meetings and extra responsibilities piled on teachers and held input sessions. A software for lesson plans has been offered to teachers, and those who have used it said it helped eliminate redundancies, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. LaToya Harrison said Wednesday.

“We’re taking that feedback and making as many changes as we can without impacting student achievement,” Harrison said.

Whitney also reported on the Excel Academy at Driver, which he hopes will open for the 2019-20 school year.

It will be an alternative program for students in grades fourth through 10th who are as much as two grade levels behind for their age. The low student-to-teacher ratio and individualized learning will focus on accelerating student learning by providing a double dose of reading and math each day with the integration of social studies, science and writing.

“This is not a behavioral alternative setting,” Whitney said. “This is more of an academic alternative setting.”

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said he liked the name of the school, and it would help students who are struggling with academics keep from developing behavioral problems as a result.

“You are keeping kids from being expelled, keeping them from dropping out,” he said.

Board member Linda Bouchard agreed.

“The idea of this school is to intervene before that even happens,” she said.

“It takes the stigma away of ‘My child’s behind,’” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said. “To me, it seems like a real positive thing.”