Class Sizes, Technology, Teacher Salaries Lead Budget Hearing

NEWARK – As in years past, requests for funding to allow for fair teacher salaries, technology and small class sizes dominated a budget hearing hosted by the Worcester County Board of Education this week.

On Tuesday, the school board heard budget requests from parents representing each of the county’s 14 schools. Aside from a few minor differences, all the school representatives want to see competitive salaries for local teachers, funding for the latest technology and for the school system to maintain small class sizes.

Officials said those requests would be considered as the coming year’s budget was developed.

“We’ll do what we can,” school board member Sara Thompson said. “It’s up to the county commissioners to help us. It’s up to you all to talk to your county commissioners and make sure they support our budget.”

Vince Tolbert, the school system’s chief financial officer, told the crowd of parents and educators that the county funded 77.5 percent of the school system’s budget. State funding accounts for 17.5 percent of the budget while federal funding accounts for 5 percent.

Tolbert said the school system spent the majority of its funding in the classroom.

“People are making the difference,” he said. “That’s what we believe.”

He said potential salary increases being considered and a rise in the cost of health insurance was expected to cost $2,485,091. A step increase for employees is projected to cost $1,050,243 while a 1 percent COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) for staff would cost $651,580. Health insurance costs are expected to increase 5 percent, which would be $783,268.

Parents confirmed, however, that salary increases should be a major consideration for the school system in the coming year. Speaker after speaker talked about the importance of high quality teachers.

“Our children’s education would not be what it is today without those phenomenal people,” said Keri Payne, the parent who presented Showell Elementary School’s requests.

Requests for technology and a continued commitment to the 1:1 initiative, through which every child is provided with a digital device, were also repeated throughout the night.

“I don’t have to tell you how important technology is in today’s classrooms,” Buckingham Elementary School parent Chris Palmer said.

Countless parents stressed the importance of maintaining small class sizes so teachers would be able to work one-on-one with students.

“The teacher-student ratio is so important …,” Berlin Intermediate School parent Allison Carmack said. “As size increases, the potential for disparity on the learning scale becomes greater.”

In addition to the three primary concerns echoed throughout the hearing, some schools also presented capital improvement suggestions. At Berlin Intermediate, Carmack said the school was in need of new carpet and that educators also wanted to repurpose the tennis court so that it could be used for pickleball. Several schools, including Snow Hill Middle School, Pocomoke Middle School and Cedar Chapel Special School, requested new HVAC units. The parent representing Stephen Decatur High School said that there, the students were in need of air conditioning in the gym, as the space was stifling during the fall.

In addition to parents, representatives of the Worcester County Teachers Association and the Worcester County Education Support Personnel Association addressed the school board. Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the teachers association, advocated for pay increases for teachers. She pointed out that Social Security would increase 2.8 percent in 2019 thanks to a cost-of-living adjustment.

“Our teachers are worth much more than we pay them,” she said. “We can’t put a price tag on what they do every day but we should try and keep up with the cost of living.”

Ivory Smith, president of the Worcester County Education Support Personnel Association, said the workload had increased for the people he represented as more and more positions were left unfilled. He said the association was seeking a 3.3-percent salary increase so that its members would have a livable wage.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.