BY STEFANIE JACKSON, Eastern Shore Post —
The Northampton School Board budget presented to county supervisors Tuesday night had a shortfall of $918,000 even after expenses were reduced to the necessities, according to school officials.
Superintendent Lisa Martin said, “Our plan this year is very simple: We are just trying to keep the lights on, the buses running, offer a regionally competitive pay increase for all staff, … offset inflation, and provide safety and security for our children and for our staff and for our families.”
A major contributor to the shortfall was the required local match for state funding for at-risk students, those at risk of failing due to poverty and other factors.
The state takes an “all or nothing” approach to at-risk funding. Northampton must accept the entire at-risk funding package, committing to the local match, or it will lose $1.4 million, Martin said.
Included in the school budget is an additional $524,000 to fund at-risk positions including eight more instructional assistants — four at the elementary schools and four at the middle school – and a second behavioral specialist.
Some additional school staff are required by the Virginia Department of Education’s Standards of Quality.
For example, VDOE has changed the ratio of students to specialized student support staff, such as social workers, school psychologists, and nurses, from 4-1 to 3-1.
Oliver Bennett, vice chairman of Northampton’s board of supervisors, noted the county is planning to spend $50 million to $70 million on renovations and new construction at its high school, and he has been asking for a plan to better maintain Northampton’s school facilities but has yet to receive one.
Bennett, himself a teacher in the county, also wants the school division to update its dress code and address student behavior, including defiance, profanity, and the use of electronic devices.
He added that the county contributes around $1 million more for public education than the state requires.
Martin, who has been superintendent for approximately 75 days, said issues like the student code of conduct and dress code are on her “to-do list.”
Bennett indicated that he may not vote for the $918,000 in additional local funding if the school division does not address his concerns.
“No disrespect, but your school board has heard this for the last two or three years,” he said. “It tells me, ‘Yeah, you said it, and so what?’ My ‘so what’ is looking at other means of getting your attention.”
The school division is requesting nearly $10.5 million in local funding this year, compared to about $9.6 million last year.
Supervisor Betsy Mapp pointed out that’s about $7,700 for each of Northampton’s approximately 1,300 public school students.
Northampton supervisors also wanted to know why the school operating budget includes an additional $25,000 for electricity and about $35,000 more for heating fuel when both elementary schools have brand-new hydrothermal heating and cooling systems intended to save money.
Supervisors asked for a study to determine the actual savings, if any, generated by the operation of the new HVAC systems.
The budget also includes 7% teacher raises as recommended by the state Senate.
The 7% will be reached by giving every teacher a raise of 5.75% plus a step raise (a step on the salary scale, equaling one year of experience) of 1.25% to 1.5%.
Martin emphasized the need to make Northampton teacher salaries competitive. Currently, the school division ranks last in the region for salaries for teachers with more than five years of experience, she said.
The budget includes a $20 additional monthly contribution to the cost of health insurance for eligible employees.
The school division also plans to increase its minimum wage for nonsalaried employees such as cafeteria workers and custodians.
The Northampton schools’ minimum wage is expected to rise to $13 an hour in July 2023, $14 an hour in July 2024, and $15 an hour in July 2025.
The school division would outpace the state on minimum wage hikes. Virginia’s minimum wage will increase from $12 an hour to $13.50 an hour in January 2025 and will not reach $15 an hour until January 2027.
Bennett said of Northampton schools’ hourly employees, “My concern is that they be treated the best that they possibly can so they can survive with their families.”