• 77°

Superintendent introduces $193.8 million budget 

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III’s proposed fiscal year 2021-2022 budget of $193.8 million would be a nearly 7% increase over the current budget, but it would not have significant increases to its operational fund even as he seeks to add more than 20 positions across the school division.

The operational fund, proposed for $163.1 million, would be a less than 1% increase from the current budget. And, though what Gordon is requesting from the city — $65.3 million — is just under a 5% increase from what it initially received from the city, when factoring in reappropriated money, it is a decrease of just under half a percent.

“We wanted to prioritize all of the things I wanted to do last year,” Gordon said, “(but) we couldn’t do because of the pandemic.”

The budget calls for adding 23.6 full-time equivalent positions, including eight new teachers and other school-related positions, a special education adaptive PE teacher specialist, a social worker, two required elementary school counselors, two high school in-school suspension monitors, a security monitor/crossing guard, a nurse assistant, and a part-time nurse assistant.

Of the teacher positions, two would teach world languages at the elementary level, another would be for a math teacher at Col. Fred Cherry Middle School and two more would teach math and English at Nansemond River High School. Two would teach the division’s growing English language learner population, and another position would go for an information technology resource teacher.

It would also pay for adding an additional month for a counselor at each high school and 20 days of additional counseling support at the division’s five middle schools. The budget also calls for an accounting technician to work in the division’s finance and human resources departments and technology applications specialist.

In the division’s administrative office, Gordon wants to add five positions — a supervisor of school counselors, coordinator of employee relations, supervisor of student activities/fitness, a supervisor of fine and performing arts and a supervisor for social-emotional support. The first four of those positions are positions Gordon sought approval for in the current budget, but cut them when the city’s allocation was not as much as what he had asked for.

“Understandably, our additional $5 million in funding that we requested (from the city) was reduced to $1.5 million,” Gordon said. “And we had to make tough decisions in staffing, preventative maintenance and resources in order to make sure that we had a balanced budget.”

Gordon said he tapped into his Chesterfield County roots in seeking a supervisor for social-emotional support. That position, if allocated, would report to Chief of Administrative Services Dr. Suzanne Rice. He expects that person to work closely with the division’s supervisor of counseling also.

“What we noticed is that a lot of the concerns we had with kids, we were also having with staff,” Gordon said.

He said the person who ends up in this position would help teachers pick up on cues from students due to the transition back to school.

‘We know this isn’t something that we can fix at one time,” Gordon said. “This is really going to be a three-year adjustment. And we figured we needed to have someone there without trying to dump it all onto our school counselors because they’re going to have other things they’re going to have to do.”

If he is able to have his budget approved for the proposed school administrative office positions, “I won’t really have to add anything to SAO for a while because I think we’ll be able to specialize enough to make it successful.”

Chief Financial Officer Wendy Forsman, who along with Gordon presented the budget to the board at its Feb. 25 meeting, cautioned that the budget will change due to the General Assembly earlier in the day agreeing to a 5% raise for teachers in the next fiscal year.

Anything that talks about a 2% bonus for staff is no longer valid, she said.

That change will affect the amount of money the division will receive from the state.

During the presentation, Gordon also sought to address what he said were false narratives about the budgeting process. He said everything people need to understand the budgeting process is already on the division’s website.

“I would like to say that if anyone has any questions about our budget process, or the formation of our line-item budget, and the proposed budget for this year, to please go to our website,” Gordon said.

In that statement, Gordon appeared to be addressing those who have called for the division to offer a line-item budget, with several people at the Feb. 17 City Council meeting calling for its members to insist on it from the board.

Gordon, in an interview earlier this week and during his presentation, noted that with Forsman in charge of the division’s finances for the past nine years, “we continue to have perfect financial audits, and our practices are in line with the Government Finance Officers Association.”

He also pointed to a line-item budget for the current fiscal year on the division’s website, along with the current and proposed budgets.

“The school division shouldn’t have to continue to defend when we know we’re doing things correctly,” Gordon said. “And when I have perfect audits, when we have as much transparency as we can on our website, I just don’t understand why people want to try to do things to undermine, when all we’re trying to do is support our students in our schools as best as we possibly can.”

Forsman outlined how the superintendent’s proposed budget was presented, and also noted that for several items in the budget, it is not practical for those to be budgeted by school.

They include textbooks, as well as diagnosticians, social workers, psychologists and teacher specialists who work at multiple schools and serve multiple caseloads that constantly change and are not practical to budget by school, she said. The division also purchases janitorial supplies in bulk and schools request them through Director of Facilities and Planning Terry Napier, and they are then sent to the school as needed. It is neither practical nor cost-effective, Forsman said, to budget that by school.

Forsman also noted that because the division receives a consolidated electricity bill based on numbered meters around the division for all of its schools, which all have multiple meters with multiple numbers.

“It is not practical to key that bill and key all those different meters to all those different schools,” Forsman said.

She also said that line items such as clerk of the board, board attorney and superintendent salaries are set by the board and are only placeholders.

Forsman also noted the reallocation by council of almost $3.3 million, sales tax money that the state had originally told the division it would not receive due to the coronavirus pandemic. It meant the division did not buy things it had planned to.

However, in July, the state made that money available, and in September, the division asked council to reappropriate it to the division, which it did. The division spent the money on 15 new school buses, other fleet purchases, a staff bonus in December, and technology and facility purchased services.

The division used the first round of CARES Act money, nearly $2.7 million, to buy new Chromebooks for students, technology platforms to deliver instruction and internet access devices, along with buying Mastery Connect — assessment and benchmark software — and disinfectant sprayers for classrooms.

It also received more than $400,000 in grant money for more internet access devices, software for English language learners, manipulatives for special needs students, and used some of that money to pay teachers to rewrite curriculum as required by the state, and bought more disinfectant and PPE.

It also received more than $2.4 million in Coronavirus Relief Act money it has used for contracted teachers, adding hot water in some school restrooms, and other student materials, along with upgraded teacher Chromebooks, interactive whiteboards, as well as disinfectants, two months of daycare for staff, the Zoom platform and air purifiers in specific classrooms.

In the next round of CARES Act money which the division has not yet received, Forsman said it is working to make adjustments in its allocation plan so that it can receive that money, since she noted that the first round of CARES Act money has to be spent first.

The division plans to use that second round of CARES Act money — nearly $12.2 million — on student access to technology, textbook adoptions, enhanced summer school, added internet access and replacing internet access devices, technology platforms, contracted teachers, and hot water in remaining classrooms without it.

It also plans to buy interactive whiteboards for any classroom that doesn’t already have them, HVAC ionization units in all division buildings, PPE and disinfecting supplies and equipment, video conferencing units, Mastery Connect and Zoom and replacing document cameras.

The division will have until September 2023 to spend the second round of CARES Act money.

“Us being able to move some facilities things, you saw some building improvement stuff, onto our CARES Act money, allowed us to use our operating funds for other needs,” Gordon said.

He credited Forsman with being able to find operational efficiencies to allow Gordon to pursue staffing and other initiatives, and he leveraged his previous experience in Chesterfield to what he believes will have the most impact for Suffolk Public Schools. The choices he made in the proposed budget with staffing, he said, were due largely to those areas being stretched thin.

“Every decision we make,” Gordon said, “is always going to be what’s going to have the greatest impact in the classroom.”

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III’s proposed fiscal year 2021-2022 budget can be found online at bit.ly/SPSproposedbudget.