POWHATAN – The Powhatan County School Board voted unanimously last week to pass its fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget, sending it on to the board of supervisors for its approval.
Following an intense discussion at the school board meeting on Tuesday, March 23, the members voted in two 5-0 votes to approve the operating budget at $50.55 million and the school food service budget at $1.43 million.
While the budget discussion started with a brief look at numbers regarding salary increases, it quickly morphed into a dialogue about intentions versus following through on promises.
A few main topics dominated the conversation, starting with Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, suggesting the school board approve the budget as he proposed despite knowing the figures may not match up with the version suggested by county administrator Ned Smither.
During a joint meeting with the board of supervisors on March 16, Smither proposed the school budget at $50.34 million, which represented a difference of $214,139 less in the county transfer.
Jones said last week that in discussions with Smither, the latter said the difference in the budget figures will likely be narrowed. Jones recommended the school board approve its budget, which has to be done by April 1, and then continue to work on it as they get more information from the county, state, and federal governments, adding it is common practice.
If the county comes back with a figure that is less than the school board proposed, Jones said he would still recommend moving ahead with one of the school board’s main focuses in this budget cycle – employee compensation.
Jones’ recommended budget includes a 5% salary increase for all employees as well as $127,183 to address salary compression for teachers, particularly those in steps 22 and above, which relates to their years of experience. For the last few meetings, the board discussed salary compression among its longest-serving teachers, whose positions earn less now than an employee in the same position earned in 2008.
With the 5% plus targeted raises for compression pay, those impacted teachers would see an overall salary increase of anywhere from 6% to 8.77%, depending on years of experience, he said.
“From my perspective, compensation for our employees has always been a top priority for the school board and for myself. That would not be diminished if we do have to make a small reduction in our budget because of the local transfer,” he said, adding they would find other areas to make reductions.
Susan Smith, who represents District 2, took issue with this approach, saying she doesn’t want to promise employees something and then have to take it back if the supervisors allocate less local dollars. She recommended prioritizing the money they know they will be getting.
She also asked questions about where the school division is prioritizing its spending, such as why there aren’t more textbooks in classrooms, teachers are still spending money for materials out of pocket, and wanting more support for teachers with English as a Second Language (ESL) students.
Jones later addressed the issue of out-of-pocket spending and ESL students by saying teachers with issues in these areas should seek assistance from the division.
Chairwoman Kim Hymel, District 5, also expressed dissatisfaction with the issue of compressed salaries. She said that she is proud of what the board was doing with the targeted compression raises but thought more needed to be done.
She initially said she wasn’t comfortable passing the budget because she still thought there was too much work to be done on the issue of compression. She demanded to see the salary scale of every employee who was working for the county in 2008 first thing the next morning. She expanded that to want all of the salary scales for all employees since 2008.
Hymel talked about delaying the vote, which is when the April 1 deadline became an issue, and then suggested having one or more meetings to hash out the issue before passing the budget.
“I don’t care if we have to meet every night for the next week. I want to get this right and I don’t want this to go on anymore with this compression,” Hymel said vehemently.
Rick Cole, District 1, had been the first to speak and express his support of Jones’ proposed budget and the critical need to do the raises now while the county was in the financial place to do so. After Hymel’s requests, he said he had mixed feelings about delaying the budget approval and adding meetings that hadn’t been advertised. He stressed that the school board had advertised months ago that it would adopt the proposed budget on March 23.
“It gives me heartburn to come in here tonight and say I am not ready to vote on the budget when that has kind of been the plan for the last four months,” he said.
Jones said he felt caught off guard at the 11th hour because the staff and school board members had been working on the budget for four month and this was the first time the information was requested. He said he could get Hymel the 2008 data she initially requested by the next day, but collating the larger request would take much more time and definitely couldn’t be done before the April 1 deadline.
Jones also pointed out that Hymel’s request would signal a change in direction from the school board. To date, when looking at the issue of compensation, the school board has compared itself against 12 other jurisdictions and tried to stay in the middle of the pack to maintain competitiveness. What Hymel said she wants to do – get rid of all compression for all employees on all scales – would be a shift in philosophy to focusing internally more when looking at salaries.
Jones pointed out that the board is working toward accomplishing the significant goal it set out to do with this budget in addressing salary compression among teachers.
“We have addressed compression in the teacher salary scale. Could we do more in terms of spreading out that scale in between the steps? Yes,” he said. “But the issue that was brought to our attention by some of our valued staff was that 2008 versus now they are making less. That no longer occurs if this budget is approved and appropriated. They will be making more than they were in 2008 on that step, so that has been addressed.”
Hymel agreed she did feel proud of that accomplishment but reiterated that she isn’t giving up on the larger issue of compression and demanded again to have the 2008 data the next day.
Seven people spoke during the public comment period, which was delayed to allow the audience to hear the budget presentation and discussion first. Of the speakers, six are current Powhatan teachers and one is a retired Powhatan teacher.
Their input covered a range of topics, including seeking fair compensation, not taking away retiree benefits, worrying that some teachers feel scared to voice their opinions, feeling undervalued for what they do, and pleading with them to go to bat with the board of supervisors for them.
Brooks Bradbury Smith, a Powhatan High School teacher, raised the issue of knowing teachers, especially ones who don’t live in the county, who are afraid to come and speak to the county’s boards about topics that concern them. She also challenged the school board to fight to get the $214,139 in local funds, pointing out the county budget for FY 2021 will likely have a $6.5 million surplus and the county took back more than $1.3 million in excess funds from the school division in FY 2020 to fund its revenue stabilization fund.
Stephanie Wirt, a PHS employe since 1999, talked about living in Powhatan County for 14 years but having to move a few years ago because she could no longer afford to live here.
“I work two jobs. With a master’s degree and 21 plus years’ experience teaching, I should not have to work two jobs,” she said.
Gail Timberlake, a former Powhatan teacher, advocated for teachers currently working for the county to receive the compensation they deserve.
“If you look out here, they are just trying to make it on a day to day basis and they are not able to do it right now. Retiring is great to think about, but they’ve got to have money to live on now, and they have a hard time making ends meet,” she said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.