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Board approves budget in virtual meeting

The Suffolk School Board special meeting had already been scheduled prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that has since closed schools and canceled other city meetings.

However, with Gov. Ralph Northam issuing guidance calling for social distancing and gatherings of no more than 10 people, the board held a virtual meeting Thursday. Most members split into multiple areas of the School Administrative Office downtown, one member attended remotely,  and another did not attend at all.

Though members of the public were not allowed to attend the meeting, the school division did post a link to the meeting through the Google Meet platform. Some, however, experienced technical difficulties in trying to watch.

The school division, in a tweet, acknowledged the difficulty and invited people to watch a recording of the 23-minute meeting, after it concluded, on the division’s YouTube page.

The board members present had to vote for another board member, David Mitnick, to participate in the meeting remotely.

Members split into two conference rooms. Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum, Vice Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, along with board members Lorita Mayo and Karen Jenkins and Director of Technology John Littlefield, were in one room. Gordon, Executive Director of Finance Wendy Forsman and board member Sherri Story were in another room. Tyron Riddick was not present either virtually or at the administrative office. School Board Clerk Tarshia Gardner was in yet another room.

The meeting was scheduled as a work session on the budget and its adoption, and there was no public comment period. Those who watched the meeting live were muted, and after brief discussion — with several questions from Story and another from Brooks-Buck, the board adopted the nearly $183 million proposed budget by a 6-0 vote, with Tyron Riddick absent.

Forsman, in updating the board on changes to the budget, said the state allocation for the division’s budget increased by $1.1 million to $5.9 million, and it decreased the city’s budget amount by about $1.1 million.  The overall appropriation from the city would be about $64.8 million, while it would include nearly $95.6 million in state revenue and about $1.1 million in federal revenue.

The proposed budget is an increase of more than $10 million overall. It calls for a 6-percent increase in funding and prioritizes raises and pay scale adjustments for teachers and staff, while adding 41 positions.

Gordon said the biggest part of the budget is improving the overall learning experience.

Starting teacher pay would increase from $43,155 to $46,000 per year with a new pay scale. Bus drivers would also have a new pay scale, and a starting hourly increase from $12.80 to $14.60.

Story asked what would happen if City Council did not fully fund the division’s request. Gordon said the budget would come back to them, and he, Forsman and other school administrators would adjust the budget to fit what council allocated, and then the board would have to vote to adopt the revised budget.

Story also asked several questions related to salaries and compensation for various staff members, including teachers and bus drivers. She said she was concerned about not seeing how the pay scales would look, but Forsman said those would come before the board’s final adoption of the division’s budget after council approval of the overall city budget.

Forsman, responding to a question from Brooks-Buck, said nothing about the budget has changed other than the state and city funding adjustments.

“We will present the teacher’s scale at the time we know our money and we adopt the (final) budget,” Forsman said. “So you’ll have a chance to see that before you do a final budget adoption. And we don’t put that out because … we don’t want people to believe that that’s going to happen if we don’t know our money, so we don’t feel that’s a responsible thing to do.”

A copy of the proposed school division budget for the next fiscal year is online at www.spsk12.net. To view the meeting, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR5eHKAbHrU.