Worcester Parents Talk Education Priorities

SNOW HILL — In preparation for the coming budget season, parent representatives from each of Worcester County’s 14 public schools presented the Board of Education with their priorities for next year during a Public Budget Input Session Tuesday.

Common requests across multiple schools included additional staffing, an employee salary increase and support for the renovation of Snow Hill High School (SHHS). The existing gap between minority student achievement and other students was also addressed.

Maintaining small class sizes was a priority for several schools. Many parent representatives asked that the board maintain or lower class sizes through the hiring of more staff.

April Payne, the parent representative for Worcester Technical High School (WTHS), pointed out that the relatively new school has blossomed in the last few years and has started to attract students en masse. She cited the boom of interest in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) field as one of the reasons.

“The programs at the Worcester Technical High School continue to grow,” said Payne. “The support of the STEM academies also continues to grow.”

Payne told the board that WTHS had a student enrollment of about 400 in 2009. This year, the school had 681 students. To prevent student population from outpacing quality of education, Payne asked that the board consider hiring a technology coach who would also serve as a curriculum planner as well as a single new instructor to teach aerospace, biotechnical and biomedical classes.

Other schools requested special education teachers, half-day nurses, music teachers and additional classroom teachers. Most parent representatives cited a significant increase in student population over the last decade as justification for expanding school faculties.

A second common request was that all school employees receive a pay raise in the next budget. Teachers, faculty and administration, along with all other Worcester County employees, received a salary increase last year. However, that was the first since the recession began and parents felt that many educators are still behind where they should be in terms of being paid for experience and effort.

“We all know that it takes a great staff to provide a great education,” said Karen Holland, the parent representative for Showell Elementary School (SES).

Crystal Baker, representing Cedar Chapel Special School (CCSS), told the board that she’s seen educators going above and beyond their duties despite the fact that classroom resources are dwindling.

“Teachers and staff are asked to do more throughout the day,” she said. “All of the teachers deserve a raise.”

The board had already taken that belief to heart, as illustrated by the preliminary Fiscal Year 2014 operating budget considerations. A STEP increase for all employees, coming in at $960,613 as well as a 1-percent Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) at $581,344 are currently on the table.

Continued support for SHHS renovations, which were delayed last year due to county budget concerns, was also high among parents. The board is currently working on green lighting all of the funding for the project in the hopes of beginning work next year. When it came to specific requests from schools for things besides staff, the majority fell into the technology category, with parents asking for things like new projectors or “smart board” learning aids.

Besides parent representatives, public comment was limited, with only Edward Lee of Snow Hill coming forward. Lee spoke as a representative for the Circle of Leaders, a minority advocacy group in Worcester. He addressed “the gap,” the test score disparity in scholastic achievement between minority students and others.

While the county does have some of the best standardized test scores in Maryland and consistently has for the last several years, there is a noticeable gap between the overall scores and those of certain sub-groups of students, such as African-Americans.

“We look to the tremendous progress that we’ve made here in Worcester County, but we can still see that gap existing,” Lee said. “And as long as it exists we will never be able to talk about equality, we’ll never be able to talk about how we’ve reached our goal.”

Lee asked that the board consider meeting with the Circle of Leaders in a private setting in the recent future to address the gap and brainstorm ways to eliminate it.

After hearing all of the requests throughout the evening, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson promised the parents and educators in the room the board would take everything to heart and do the best it could with the budget.

“I wholeheartedly would love to be able to see all of those requests fulfilled but I think if you listen to all of those requests, like we did, you would know that those requests far exceed what we will be able to accomplish,” he said. “That’s the frank reality of budgeting. We know that from our personal lives.”