School Board approves budget

Published 11:53 pm Thursday, March 25, 2021

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The Suffolk School Board made quick work in passing Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III’s $196.3 million budget.

By a 5-1 vote during the less than 12 minute special meeting at Col. Fred Cherry Middle School, with Sherri Story voting against and Tyron Riddick absent, the board will now forward the budget to City Council. The proposed budget calls for $65.3 million in city funding, along with $100.7 million in state money, $26.2 million in federal money and $4.1 million in other funds — non-state or non-federal grant sources.

The operation fund in the budget is $165.6 million, the grants fund about $22.8 million and the food services fund $7.9 million.

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Teachers would get anywhere from a 2.83% to a 4.58% raise depending on their experience, as the state budget required local divisions to provide a 5% raise over two years. With this year’s proposed raises for teachers, they would receive anywhere from a 7.83% to a 10.58% raise over the two-year state budget.

Teachers with 0 to 10 years of experience would also get a 1% step raise, and those with 11 to 34 years of experience would see a 1.75% step raise. As a result, starting teacher salaries would rise to more than $46,700 per year.

After getting moved to a new pay scale in the current budget that had starting pay increased to $14.60 per hour, bus drivers would get a 1% step increase.

The approved state budget includes a requirement to add school counselors and specialized student support positions, and a 5% raise over two years for all staff.

The budget also calls for spending $1.7 million to add 23.6 full-time equivalent positions — eight new teachers and other school-related positions, a special education adaptive physical education teacher specialist, a social worker, two required elementary school counselors, two high school in-suspension monitors, a security monitor/crossing guard, a nurse assistant and a part-time nurse assistant.

Board Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck said the board and the school division has taken misinformation, negative comments and inappropriate stories and countered with facts.

“Each time we face them with facts, the arguments have turned to something else,” Brooks-Buck said following the vote. “When we faced the falsehood with the low performance of schools, we were fully accredited. When we faced them with poor student performance, we got $25 million in scholarships. That’s a demonstration of what students can do. And that’s definitely not a demonstration of poor student performance.”

She continued by noting that when the school division received criticism for having hidden money, it had perfect audits, and that when criticized for budgets not being transparent enough, it shared budgets with everyone.

“They are available,” Brooks-Buck said. “They are public — always have been, always will be.”

The board did not discuss the budget during the special meeting, but in explaining her no vote, Story said it was not a reflection on whether teachers deserved raises.

“We’ve not spent all our funds this year, (and) we should have some returning to us,” Story said. “I don’t think, in this year where we’ve received a lot of funding from state, federal, and we may receive some more, I don’t think it warrants the extra from our city and our city government.

“I would have rather demonstrated to them that we could have been more fiscally conservative. And that’s not taking away from anyone’s salary increases. I want to make sure that is very clear to the media we have here. It’s not a reflection of not wanting our staff to have raises, but I think that this budget is not as tight as it could be, and as efficient. … or as transparent as we could be.”

When the board adopted a nearly $183 million proposed budget last March, Gordon proposed $64.8 million in city funding, and Story voted in favor of that budget.

Story ultimately voted against the revised budget last year after council reduced the division’s allocation by $2.44 million to $62.3 million. Gordon, at that time, was not caught off guard about the cut, as then-City Manager Patrick Roberts had given him a heads-up about it.

The cut ended up being more than $4.3 million from Gordon’s original request last year after the state also reduced its allocation by $2 million. That should not be an issue this year, as the state recently increased its allocations to school divisions around the state, including Suffolk.

Last September, council unanimously approved allowing Suffolk Public Schools to keep $3.26 million in unspent money from the previous school year.

Gordon, after the meeting, said the school division has been “very efficient in everything that we have done” and looks for sustainability when it spends money. He also said that with federal CARES Act and other money the division has received, there are specific guidelines to follow on how to spend that money.

Like he was last year, Gordon said he is optimistic that council will approve his request, and believes the majority of the community understands and supports the school division.

“I’m very optimistic,” Gordon said. “I’ve had some individual conversations. I know that our board members have had conversations with their respective colleagues on council. I’m optimistic that we will be able to get this done, and if we do, then we’ll really be able to take that next step.”