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State budget changes force school adjustments

With a change in the state budget decreasing some revenue categories by nearly $500,000, Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney’s budget would still protect teacher and staff raises but reduce both the number of new school counselors and the scope of the Excel Academy.

The initial proposed budget at $173.8 million would fall to just over $173.3 million, with the change in state money falling from $90.6 million from Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget, to $90.1 million as passed by the General Assembly and awaiting Northam’s signature. The proposed budget would be a $1 million increase in the city’s share, from $59.8 million to $60.8 million.

The budget includes $1.75 million to cover a 2.25 percent cost-of-living raise for teachers, and support staff would receive a half-percent cost-of-living raise, as well as a step increase on the pay scale. At a cost of $967,500, permanent part-time staff would receive a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase.

The raises would still happen as originally proposed, according to Executive Director of Finance Wendy Forsman, even with a slight drop in the state’s compensation supplement, and would take effect in July.

Forsman provided an example of what that would mean for Suffolk teachers and staff. For a teacher at step 17 of the salary scale ($55,044) and a master’s degree supplement ($2,944), that person would currently make $57,998. Under the proposed raises, that would put that teacher at a step 18 salary ($56,282) and the same master’s supplement, to make that person’s pay $59,226.

Forsman’s explained that a support staff member currently at grade 11, step 17 of the salary scale makes $31,763. A step increase, along with a half-percent cost-of-living raise, would make that person’s salary $32,707, providing that person with a 3-percent raise.

Whitney’s proposed budget originally called for six additional school counselors at a $550,000 cost. His revised budget reduces the number of additional counselors to 1.5, saving $336,140.

The Excel program was previously going to be staffed with four, 11-month teacher specialists who would be serving 60 students in grades 4 through 7 who are struggling academically in traditional classrooms.

However, with the drop in funding, Whitney proposed that the program have two teachers along with two teacher assistants to serve 30 students, which would save $104,040 from what was originally proposed at $368,372.

“I’m concerned we’re whittling the Excel program down,” said board member David Mitnick. “Should we be holding off until we can fund it with more support than what we would be providing?”

Whitney said it would be more of a pilot program in the first year to allow it to work out any kinks, with the goal of expanding it. He said it was a difficult choice to reduce the scope of the program, but he said he did not want to decrease the teacher and staff salary increases.

“I do understand your concern and that it is a concern of mine as well,” Whitney said.

Whitney said after the meeting that the goal for the program would be to house it at a centrally located site that would have the needed space.

The budget also calls for a $49,000 reduction in disaster recovery equipment — from $150,000 to $101,000.

Just one person, Education Association of Suffolk President Sid Neighbours, spoke during a public hearing on the proposed budget. He offered his full support.

“Each year we advocate for appropriate salary increases for our members … and this year is no different,” Neighbours said.

The School Board has scheduled a special meeting at 7 p.m. March 19 to approve the budget. The location has yet to be determined.