Legislators, school officials share priorities

Published 10:33 pm Friday, December 6, 2019

Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III and members of the School Board shared the division’s successes and challenges while getting feedback from legislators Friday at Col. Fred Cherry Middle School.

Republican Delegate Emily Brewer, who represents the 64th District, and Democratic Delegate-elect Clinton Jenkins of the 76th District joined City Councilman Lue Ward, six of the seven board members, school division staff and CFCMS Principal Shawn Green for an exchange of concerns, ideas and priorities. They also toured several classrooms and other parts of the school and answered questions from a pair of civics classes.

Gordon told legislators he is concerned that about being able to attract, develop and retain highly qualified and diverse staff. He said fewer college graduates are going into education.

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“It’s definitely a focus here in Suffolk to make sure that we have a staff that matches the demographics of our students,” Gordon said. “And it means so much when we have those positive role models in front of our kids.”

While it’s not just about increasing pay, Gordon said that is an important element he wants to address, citing Suffolk as ninth in the Hampton Roads region in teacher pay. He said division staff, including Finance Director Wendy Forsman, have been looking at all aspects of teacher compensation.

“We’re looking at what the difference was at every step of the (pay) scale,” Gordon said, “and what can we do to let our teachers and all of our staff members know they’re valued.”

He said he also wants to provide support for new teachers, but noted that the majority of teachers coming to Suffolk aren’t fresh out of college; either they are coming from other school divisions or they are career switchers. He said they are going to look at ways of attracting new teachers out of college.

Among all localities, including Suffolk, he said there are high needs in special education and math teachers.

He also said he wants to expand the school administrative office, saying that it is staffed to handle 8,500 students in the division, not the more than 14,000 it currently has.

Gordon noted that there will be further budget discussions at the Dec. 12 board meeting, but said all of the schools in the division, collectively, have identified $4.5 million in needs, which “doesn’t even include what we think we need as a school division to be able to move some things forward.”

Brewer asked for Suffolk’s School Board to track education bills that have unfunded mandates in them. She also is focused on career tracking and wants to see an honest conversation about degree programs, starting at the high school level.

“Everyone should have a great dream, but also, if they’re going to stay in the Commonwealth or in this region, we really need to give them a healthy dose of reality and what their opportunities are, and their best-case scenarios,” Brewer said.

She also noted that school divisions around the state should see more money from state lottery, as the General Assembly approved putting a “lockbox” on that money.

Gordon, however, said he was concerned that with gaming places popping up around the state, that lottery money will go down.

“We’re going to handle that,” Brewer said.

She said with spouse reciprocity for military families having passed the General Assembly last year, it will allow those teachers to get into the classroom easier.

Ward said he is fully supportive of the city’s school division. He wants to see a greater emphasis on career and technical education for students who do not plan to go to college, called for more African American male teachers in the classroom and expressed concern about late buses.

Jenkins said he wants to see support for teachers in the classroom and give them more power, especially with issues of student disruption of classes.

Gordon said he was pleased with the exchange of ideas and believes there is the potential for even brighter days ahead for Suffolk Public Schools.

“Having a local official here, state officials here, if we all get on the same page, the things we can do for our kids will be unbelievable,” Gordon said. “It’s going to start with funding, it’s going to start with programs, the follow-through … is going to be so important.”

Gordon said he plans to hold a similar event for legislators in the spring and let them see more of their schools — the newer as well as aging ones.

“We want to make sure that we keep you in the loop and invite you all in as much as possible,” Gordon said. “We have actually had some discussions about doing something else in the spring and taking you to some of our schools so you can see some of the great architectural designs that we have, and also, some of our needs as our buildings are getting older and older. We want to make sure that we have an equitable learning experience for all of our kids.”