School Board OKs $226.8 million budget

Published 6:04 pm Friday, March 24, 2023

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The Suffolk Public Schools $226.8 million budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year won approval at a special March 22 School Board meeting.

The budget’s total includes a request of $71 million in local funding from Suffolk City Council.

“We are here to move full steam ahead for what’s in the best interest of our students,” Board Chairman Tyron D. Riddick said. “That’s the primary focus of why we are here, and if anyone else has any other motives as to why you are here, I ask that you do some soul searching and let’s get back to what we have to do and that is, propel our students forward in the right direction.”

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Opening the discussion on the proposed budget, Riddick said board members have had a month to review the budget book and pose their questions to Superintendent John B. Gordon and his staff. 

On detailing public discussion, Riddick noted there were 41 inquiries from both board members and the public, three from citizens directly to staff. During the discussion, Board Member Dawn Marie Brittingham spoke on a budget concern she wasn’t able to get an answer to.

“One of the big initiatives that was brought forth when the budget was brought to us was student achievement. And I see that there is a place in the budget where we are losing funding,” Brittingham said. “I am concerned because as a board, we have all affirmed that student achievement is important.”

Brittingham referred to page 19 and focused on the Virginia Preschool Initiative, Early Reading Initiative and At Risk Add-ons. 

“We’re losing a million dollars inside of the Early Reading Intervention, and that’s problematic for me because we have said student achievement is at our top priority and the best place to start that at is with early intervention,” she said. “So my question is, how will we as a division moving forward offset the loss of the cost that we can continue to provide the same funding amount to Early Reading Intervention, also to the Virginia Preschool Initiative and the At Risk Program for those identified learners.”

She then pointed out that money was added for areas such as Travel and Training, Purchase Services, and Dues and Subscriptions, noting those have increased across the board. 

“My concern is that we have placed a good amount of money into these areas. It doesn’t need to be there,” Brittingham said. “It needs to be in our Early Intervention Program, it needs to be in our Preschool Initiative, it needs to be in our At Risk Program. These are non-negotiables in the service of the students and educators of SPS.”

Riddick replied that it was detailed at the Feb. 23 budget presentation that “some of those positions had been moved from one category to another one.” 

Chief Financial Advisor Wendy Forsman then addressed the differences of revenues and expenses.

“First of all, I think it’s apples and oranges. When you’re looking at page 19, you’re looking at revenue from the state. We have no control over what the state does with the revenue and which category they place it in,” Forsman explained during the discussion.

“As we discussed at the Budget Presentation, they moved money in order to supply those reading specialists to us to basic aid. When they did that, obviously they’ve taken it from Early Reading Intervention. And so, you’ll see that it did go down from the state’s point of view on page 19, which again, is revenues that the states told us that they’re going to give us.”

Forsman said in the body of the budget book, the preschool initiative shows additions to the budget, which are the 11 reading specialists that are coming from Title I back into the operating fund.

“You know that there are five reading literacy coaches that are staying in Title I plus the 10 teacher assistants that we’re adding, all add to that Early Reading piece,” she said. “You may not see it in a place called ‘Early Reading’ in the budget because there are no programs called that.

She said this is buried in the General Education area because that’s where the state tells schools to code it.

Forsman further explained the increase in pre-kindergarten on page 80 went up 2.16%, slightly less than than the budget itself went up.

“We have 442 slots for Pre-K that we fill each year,” she said. “There are about 20 students at the beginning of the year that are on a waiting list. But when I talked to the young lady that handles this, she said that there are about 20 kids that come on and go off during the year and they usually end up filling those slots with the kids that are on the waiting list at the very beginning of the year, and generally don’t have kids that aren’t served all year.” 

Forsman said the State now only pays for 332 slots, so locally the district pays for 110 slots of its own, above and beyond what the state said that SPS is required to do.

When explaining the salary line for teachers, Forsman noted there are 24 teachers for this year and next year. She further explained her process putting the budget together.

“When I put the budget together, I use real payroll each year. I take a picture of the payroll when it’s at its highest,” she said. “Then I use those numbers and I add to it a placeholder for the vacancies, because we know we want to hire those folks and it is irresponsible financially not to put the money on the budget. So when I put those vacancies in, I put them in as a placeholder for an average salary of that particular position,” Forsman detailed. “So if the average salary for teachers without benefits, just the salary line, is about $53,000, then that’s what I use as my placeholder and if I need five, or six or seven, depending on the program, I use that number times that base number to put those in the budget. So each year that happens.”

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III also addressed Brittingham’s question on Dues and Subscriptions.

“That cost went up because the cost for Dues and Subscriptions went up. That is inflation and it’s also an aspect where we knew that as the pandemic was slowing down. We were going encourage our staff to go out to more conferences, to join more organizations, to bring back more information to our school division so that we can reach our goal in becoming the premiere school division in the country and they can’t do that if they’re not going out to do that professional learning,” Gordon said. “So Dues and Subscriptions went up on an average of 5 to 10% for every organization, every magazine, everything that they do and because our staff has also increased.”

When asked by Riddick if she had a better understanding, Brittingham replied that she did.

“I’ve gotten more information, yes. Thank you, I appreciate it,” she said.

Following the closing of discussions, the $226.8 million budget was approved with a 6-1 vote, with Brittingham the lone no vote. The budget now moves to City Council for its consideration.

Following the approval Gordon talked about the School Construction Assistance Program that SPS was able to apply for.

“As you all remember from the joint City Council meeting when this topic came up, one of the things that I said was it was really going to be based on the level of Economic Development, your local composite index and support that you receive from the City. And this is the reason why we barely made it through, but they are going to take care of the school divisions to have a higher economic need. I want that on record to be known,” Gordon said.

He said the district is eligible for more than $15 million, but they are not going that full amount.

“There is actually a chance we might not receive anything,” Gordon said. “Unfortunately at the state level, there is no timeline for when these awards are going to be given. We are hoping that these awards will be given before July 1 because after July 1, rules actually change for school construction.”

Finally, Gordon explained that they wanted to be open with the board, school community and the city, while noting Forsman’s constant contact with Suffolk Director of Finance Tealen Hansen about the application and the school’s chances with it.

“If we are awarded any of this money, we will be looking to apply that to some of the requests that have come from the School Board on our current CIP (Capital Improvement Plan).”


Editor’s note: Updated 16th passage at 11:44 a.m., Sunday, March 26 to reflect correct number.


Editor’s note: Updated 10th quote at 2:58 p.m., Monday, March 27 to reflect grammatical corrections.