By Stefanie Jackson – The Accomack school board’s fiscal year 2023 budget is overloaded with items that don’t directly improve students’ education, according to some speakers at a Feb. 1 public hearing on the matter.
“We are concerned that the budget as presented is very heavy in infrastructure versus instruction,” said Karen Downing on behalf of the Eastern Shore chapter of Virginia Organizing.
The group’s top priority for the Accomack schools operating budget was funding the recruitment and retention of qualified teachers and school staff.
Downing acknowledged Accomack schools will provide increased pay and benefits for teachers – the budget includes $1.8 million for the local share of the cost of a 5% salary increase and an additional $150,000 for health insurance.
However, the budget also contains several items related to school infrastructure, which Virginia Organizing’s members believe “could be delayed for some time until we’re able to get all of our positions filled with qualified teachers” and develop a “strong pool” of teachers that can withstand normal reductions in the workforce, such as teachers retiring, Downing said.
Among the school facility expenses listed under additional proposed expenditures was approximately $173,000 for a parking lot overlay at Arcadia Middle School; Finance Director Beth Onley noted that maintaining existing school parking lots is cheaper than building new parking lots.
Onley also commented on nearly $44,000 in the budget for a chiller service contract, pointing out that one new chiller costs about $250,000.
Proposed expenditures for Arcadia High School included about $124,000 for an intercom, clock, and bell system, nearly $77,000 to replace the load center, and $60,000 for bleachers.
Other proposed projects included repainting classrooms in Nandua High School and Accawmacke Elementary School for $92,000 at each school, installing a voice over internet protocol or VoIP phone system (which works using broadband internet) at Chincoteague High School for $40,000, and upgrading computer software for nearly $26,000.
Vehicle-related expenditures included $50,000 for a box truck to replace the pickup truck used for landscaping, $38,000 for two cars, and more than $13,000 for a 24-foot trailer with a tilt, which would be used to tow a car when needed.
Proposed projects to support educational programs include renovating the business labs at Arcadia and Nandua high schools for $50,000 and repairing Nandua High’s greenhouse for $25,000.
Accomack schools also should fund staff to run the technology labs, said Connie Burford, of Bloxom.
Her daughter, who graduated in 2015, belonged to “one of the best prepared classes that ever went through Accomack County, because in elementary school, those students were exposed to the technology,” Burford said.
The elementary school students attended class in the technology labs every week, but the program ended sometime after her daughter completed it, Burford said.
“How far ahead would we have been when the (COVID-19) pandemic hit if these kids were exposed to technology once a week and they knew how to use these Chromebooks and things like that when we had shut down?” she asked.
If children are to be encouraged to explore careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), “we need to start them out with a good foundation to achieve greatness,” Burford said.
The school board added to the budget an expenditure of more than $252,000 for two music or band teachers and two art teachers; one of each will be shared by Arcadia middle and high schools, and one of each will be shared by Nandua middle and high schools.
The school board also added nearly $190,000 for three secondary English teachers, about $63,000 for a career and technical education teacher, and $50,000 for additional coaching and activity supplements.
Luke Brankley, Nandua High School athletic director, spoke in support of the proposal to increase stipends for athletic directors and coaches.
He asserted that athletic directors and coaches are doing more work due to COVID-19 and new regulations, and even before the pandemic, they were underpaid.
Athletic directors could be full-time employees; at the high school level, they are responsible for three seasons of sports and activities, as well as summer activities, Brankley said.
An athletic director makes only $700 more than one of the highest paid coaches, even though a coach works for only one season, he noted.
Coaches, who earn less than minimum wage for the hours they work, also should receive increased stipends, Brankley said.
“Remember, athletics and activities are a valuable part of every child’s life,” he said.
Accomack schools will receive about $7.1 million more in state funding in FY 2023 than it received last year, when revenues from all sources totaled nearly $53 million. The state determines how the additional funds may be spent.
Coordinator of Student Health Services Tonya Martin reported that as of Feb. 1, Accomack County had nine new cases of COVID-19 and a seven-day average of 46 new cases per day.
Accomack had 322 cases of COVID-19 in the last seven days, about half the cases reported one week prior, which were 638.
Accomack schools had 44 cases of COVID-19: four teachers, eight staff members, and 32 students.
Martin asked the school board to adopt the new COVID-19 isolation guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which include reducing an isolation period from 10 to five days.
Martin had requested that the new policy take effect Monday, Feb. 7, to allow time for school nurses to become familiarized with the new CDC guidelines.
A motion was made instead to adopt the new guidelines effective immediately; the motion passed in an 8-1 vote, with school board member Camesha Handy opposed.