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Gordon: Proposed budget is investment

In introducing his first-ever budget, Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III referred several times to the word “investment.”

The proposed budget, he said, is an investment in students and in staff and addresses immediate and longer-term needs of the school division, with the process starting when Gordon held the first of his three community meetings just after he took the reins as superintendent last October.

“We heard the needs of our students, staff and the community on what they thought was necessary in order to take Suffolk Public Schools to the next level,” Gordon said.

The proposed budget of nearly $183 million calls for a 6-percent increase in funding — $94.9 million from the state, $65.8 million from the city and $2 million in federal money.

It represents a $4.8 million increase in spending from the state and a $5 million increase from the city. The amount of federal money remains unchanged.

Overall, the budget for the next fiscal year is an increase of more than $10 million.

“Our students are our future, and this is the type of money we need in order to move the school division forward to meet the goals of building exceptional schools and take our school division to the next level,” Gordon said.

New positions

It addressed what Gordon said were staffing needs across the division, from adding six middle school teachers and one high school health and P.E. teacher to address overcrowded classrooms, to adding a pair of instructional technology resource teachers, converting five part-time special education teacher assistant positions to full-time positions and adding a pair of school counselors for elementary schools.

There is also money for an additional elementary school receptionists, as well as a fine and performing arts supervisor.

The budget also calls for an additional full-time nurse assistant and a part-time nurse assistant due to increased caseloads.

It also proposes five new in-school suspension monitors to provide an alternative to out-of-school suspensions. Chief Financial Officer Wendy Forsman said six elementary schools would share monitors, and two high schools would have a dedicated monitor.

The budget also has money for the new position of technology applications specialist for the division’s new SPS Connect project that is providing Chromebooks to students, and it provides money for protection software and hotspot access. Gordon noted that, as of Tuesday, 91 percent of secondary students in grades 6 through 12 have Chromebooks.

It also proposes to add three new positions in the administrative office — a director of curriculum, a supervisor of counselors and an administrative assistant — as well as a new supervisor of employee relations under human resources.

“You all have heard me say before how I’ve felt that we are understaffed,” Gordon said. “And that is something that we feel that within this budget that we are going to address.”

Compensation

Gordon also sought to address compensation issues for teachers, bus drivers and other support staff.

Forsman noted that SPS is ranked ninth out of 11 school divisions in its region for pay, with 37 vacant and unfilled teacher positions, with the pay scale topping out at 29 years.

Starting teacher pay would increase from $43,155 to $46,000 per year, with a new pay scale with equal percentage increases between steps. Experienced teachers would see a salary increase from $66,997 for 29 years of experience, up to $77,054 for those with 34 or more years of experience. The raises in the proposed budget would cost nearly $4.6 million.

“We will no longer have steps that are the exact same amount or different by $50,” Forsman said.

The division’s contribution that it gives to the Virginia Retirement System adds about $932,000 to the budget.

There would also be a new bus driver scale with a starting hourly rate of $14.60 per hour, an increase of $1.80 from the current hourly rate, which Forsman said is no longer competitive for the region. The compensation adjustment for bus drivers would cost an additional $260,000.

Full-time support staff would also receive a 3-percent cost of living adjustment, while permanent part-time staff would get a 1.5-percent cost of living adjustment at a cost of $550,000. Nurses and nurse assistants will be in year three of a three-year phase-in for health services salary increases.

There would also be increases in coaching stipends for middle and high school teachers. There would also be stipends for sponsors for clubs with formal charters, with elected officers and ones that are leadership-focused.

Custodians

Gordon is also emphasizing facility cleanliness in his budget, proposing seven full-time custodians, four additional part-time positions to be converted into full-time and adding eight part-time custodians.

Forsman said custodians indicated that they are overworked and have staffing levels at some locations that amount to each custodian being responsible for 25,000 square feet of those places.

“Custodians felt underappreciated and disconnected from the staff,” Forsman said.

The budget also has money for an additional school crossing guard and security monitor, as well as money for a new mobile safety app called In Force 911.

Reaction

Gordon said he was impacted in putting this budget together by his superintendent’s advisory committee that is made up of nine students, who represent each of the division’s middle and high schools and the College and Career Academy at Pruden.

He also said he factored in School Board members’ concerns, such as doing more for the division’s support staff and transportation department, as well as providing teacher raises.

Board members praised the budget as addressing the division needs, while showing that Gordon listened to the concerns of various stakeholders.

Board Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum said the budget proves that the division is investing in its future.

“There’s so much in this that are things I’ve only dreamed of,” Byrum said.

Gordon said his biggest concern in putting together the budget was to improve the overall learning experience for students.

“The key word that you saw up there … was investment,” Gordon said. “We’re asking our City Council to invest in Suffolk Public Schools like they probably haven’t done in a long time. But it’s something that is necessary.”