SPS superintendent explains proposed budget, addresses public comments on plan
Published 8:11 pm Monday, March 20, 2023
Ahead of Wednesday, March 22’s expected approval of the 2023-2024 schools budget, Suffolk Public Schools superintendent sat down to discuss the $226.8 million spending plan.
During a Thursday, March 16 interview, Dr. John B. Gordon III addressed both feedback from a recent public hearing, along with explaining the district’s process of putting the budget proposal together.
Gordon discussed public comments received on the budget at the March 9 School Board meeting.
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“It’s interesting where every time where we have public comment on the budget, we always want to encourage our constituents to be able to address whatever they want to talk about,” he said. “Some people view it as, that’s an opportunity for people to come and just tell you everything that they don’t like, everything that’s a concern.”
Gordon said there were speakers who said they are pleased with the budget, including that of the Employee Association of Suffolk.
“We allow public comment, not only to every one of our school board members, but specifically related to the budget that was in December when we wanted to have the public be able to share what they were looking for as we were building the budget,” he explained. “Then of course, this opportunity that they had at the last School Board meeting.”
Gordon said he loves to have constituents talk about the level of service being provided to the school system.
“That’s going to have to be a continuing conversation because I just actually came from Shelley Butler-Barlow, city council member from the Chuckatuck Borough, during our [School Board and City Council] joint meeting we had. I don’t appreciate the critic that stated that the budget doesn’t align to the strategic plan, which is completely false,” Gordon said. “The budget has to align to strategic plan. As a matter of fact, when you look in our budget book, it actually states which indicators and which areas of strategic plan it definitely aligns with.”
Gordon detailed on how both student achievement and safety are a top priority for the budget.
“We clearly stated within our budget that 11 reading specialists now have to be on our operating budget. A lot of school divisions, because its money that come down from the state, can’t afford to do that,” Gordon explained.
He said SPS is going to make sure to continue that at the elementary level. Additionally, the district is adding a minimum of 10 additional teacher assistant positions, which the placement of those at particular schools will be determined backed on this year’s accreditation status.
“Overall, our theme of safety, security and support is the biggest thing because with us hiring for a minimum of 28 S-3 positions and allowing teachers to have more opportunity in uninterrupted planning,” Gordon explained. “That is the key foundational core of student achievement, because you have to make sure as your teachers are prepared.”
This also provides teachers with the opportunity to analyze the data so they can use the instructional data to drive instruction within the classroom.
“When I hear statements like that, that also lets me know that people haven’t read the budget, and they continue to have a grudge against the school division,” Gordon said.
Beyond these issues, he noted there were not many speakers discussing the budget at the March 9 meeting.
“One of the things that we are specific and we’re very strategic about is in our budget book,” Gordon said. “If there’s any change on any budget line, we provide a narrative and a differentiation showing what we spent last year versus what we’re spending this year.”
The executive summary is prepared for those who do not want to read all of the details, he explained. If a budget line was over in the previous year, it is increased for the next year. Additionally, he said many increases in the proposed spending plan are driven by inflation.
Gordon then addressed public comments regarding the ratio between full-time teachers and long-term substitute teachers.
“When I first got here in 2019, out of 12 school divisions in the region, Suffolk Public Schools was ninth in teacher salaries,” he said. “I felt it was imperative for us to find strategies and a plan to be able to increase teacher salaries and administrative salaries every year. The first year we basically did a 1% cost of living adjustment. But when COVID occurred and the teacher shortage began, we knew we were going to be in a competitive market, even to find people to cover our classes.”
He said they tried to make the SPS substitute pay the highest in the region.
“That’s something that we did,” he said. “Those long-term subs getting $180 or $232 a day, depending on what their qualifications and criteria is, to make it the highest in the region so that they would decide to come work with us here in Suffolk versus going to some of the other school divisions — Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Newport News — those we knew were the ones we were going to be competing with.”
This provided SPS with the chance to use long-term subs in many of its schools because there weren’t teachers that were in the pool to take these jobs. Gordon said the district isn’t going to just hire anyone.
“Because we knew that we had a long-term sub in that position, we also have a partnership with PCG and Tutor University, who helps us with our Saturday Academy, that every long-term sub actually has a virtual teacher through that organization to support that classroom,” he explained. In some cases some long-term subs may not have the full knowledge base, but they still have someone online to support these kids for the actual curriculum instruction angle.
“We’ve already hired a lot of people that will start next year,” Gordon said. “We also have a lot of our teacher assistants and long-term subs that are now very excited about potentially becoming a full-time teacher. So we’re trying to push them through at the state level to be able to get their provisional licenses, and I actually called in some favors to try and expedite that process.”
Making a budget
Gordon detailed the district’s process of creating and producing the proposed budget, pointing out that he believes it’s important to have all 2,300 employee voices in it.
“Third week of school in September is when we start, and we send out surveys to all of our buildings, to all of our departments,” Gordon said.
The responses come back through Google Forms so they can review participation levels and send out reminders, he said. It’s reviewed at the building level so they can follow progress at all 21 schools.
“The principals that introduce this information will stay at a faculty meeting and then we give a window of about seven days to two weeks for people to fill it out,” he said. “That information is then shared at the building level as Ms. [Wendy] Forsman has the master so she can see everybody’s everything. We use our data and research team to help us collect the data, and then that information is discussed within the superintendent’s cabinet for three months.”
While this is taking place, he waits until January to further engage School Board members, keeping the chair informed in the event new members are elected. For new members such as DawnMarie Brittingham and Kim A. Slingluff, he meets with them after they are elected on the timeline to prepare them for the January organizational meeting.
At this point, similar survey forms go to the school board members to ask, “What are some of the things that you’re looking for in the budget and please give us a reason why.”
Gordon said he reviews this, much like one does for a research paper, “finding common themes at the elementary level, middle school, high school level within departments and common themes within the schools and the school board members.”
Along with noting the key components being in the budget, Gordon discussed meeting at the cabinet and chief level three times to take a hard look the challenge of “separating the wants from the needs.”
Principals and department leads provide background reasons so that Gordon has the full story before he and his team make a decision. He also meets with board members in pairs for any questions. Likewise, he discusses the budget highlights with the Superintendent Advisory Council to make sure the student voices are reflected in the budget.
“And those are the things that really go into what we presented on Feb, 23 of this year,” Gordon said. “Then we’ll make tweaks based on some board member questions or feedback, new information from the state level — really doesn’t change a lot, especially for this biennium — but we will make adjustments.”
It then moves to the final stage. “You have about two months where City Council tries to determine if the needs of the school division can fit into the needs of the city,” Gordon said.
Every year that he’s been in his role as superintendent, excluding his first year, he said City Council provided full funding for the budget.
“My first year here I actually asked for $3 million and because of the pandemic hit, Patrick Roberts, City Manager at the time, said ‘I can’t just afford it because sales tax revenue was down.’ Made a lot of sense so he gave us 1.5 [million],” Gordon said. “The City must allocate their money by May 15 of every year per the Code of Virginia. Soon as that occurs, we will then call a special School Board meeting to adopt the budget.”
This allows the district to get contracts to teachers and allows posting of job descriptions for any of those new positions.
“We really try to lock in as many of our current staff in our contracts before they go home for the summer, and try to make sure that the majority got all of our ironing done before the end of July,” Gordon said.
Editor’s note: Updated third and fourth quotes as well as fifth, sixth, ninth, 10th and 11th passage at 12:20 p.m., Tuesday, March 21 to reflect grammar corrections.