Teacher Pay, Small Classes Top Budget Requests

NEWARK – Requests for competitive teacher salaries, small class sizes and the latest technology highlighted a budget input session hosted by the Worcester County Board of Education.

On Tuesday, the school system hosted its annual public input session for the coming year’s budget. Budget priorities from each school were presented by parents, most of whom said they wanted to see teachers compensated well and class sizes remain small as the fiscal year 2021 budget was developed.

“We know it’s a hard job and it takes a lot of long hours and we do appreciate that,” Stephen Decatur Middle School parent Kate Gaddis said.

While competitive teacher salaries and small class sizes were the most repeated priorities, other common requests included updated technology and additional personnel. Several schools also had capital improvement requests.

At Stephen Decatur High School, parents asked for air conditioning in the gym, where temperatures made it difficult for athletes this fall. At Snow Hill Elementary School, a request was made for a fence around the early childhood playground. At Stephen Decatur Middle, Gaddis said the folding wall between the gym and the cafeteria needed to be replaced.

Superintendent Lou Taylor thanked parents for their input as budget development began.

“Each year, as a I sit in these meetings I am continually overwhelmed by the support we have from our teachers, our administrators at both the school and county level, and the number of parents wishing to lend their voice to the budget discussions,” Taylor said.

He said that the school system’s annual parent survey, conducted in November, showed that there was an “overwhelming request” to ensure teachers were fairly compensated.

“I wholeheartedly agree that the top priority for this budget and every budget should be ensuring that we can attract and retain high quality educators,” he said. “The best way to do this is to remain competitive in terms of compensation and benefits.”

The parent survey also showed that nearly all of the school system’s instructional programs received a favorability rating of 95% or higher. In a write-in section, however, parents did ask—for the fifth year in a row—for an expansion of world languages.

“Additional responses indicated a desire for mental health resources as well as more support for parents to help their children in mathematics,” said Carrie Sterrs, the school system’s coordinator of public relations and special programs.

In a presentation on the current year’s budget, Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert reported that the school system’s largest expenditure was instructional programs, which accounted for 66% of the $111 million budget. Special education accounts for 15% of expenditures while other costs include transportation, operation of plant, health services, administration and maintenance of plant.

Tolbert estimated that working a step increase, a 1% cost-of-living-adjustment and a 5% increase in health insurance costs into the coming year’s budget would cost $2.5 million.

Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association, said that Wicomico and Somerset counties — both of which receive significantly more state aid than Worcester — currently paid starting teachers more than Worcester County did.

Shockley-Lynch said new teachers in Wicomico earned $600 more and new teachers in Somerset earned $900 more annually. She also pointed out that educational assistant positions that were cut during budget deliberations several years ago in Worcester County hadn’t yet been restored.

Shockley-Lynch stressed that teachers were as committed to ensuring student success as they’d ever been.

“Teachers care about their students and they work every day to give them what they need,” she said. “But they are struggling to make up for the reduced level of resources. They’re using an awful lot of their own money to buy what kids need.”

Bill Gordy, president of the school board, said he was sorry to know there was a $600 difference between Worcester and Wicomico starting teacher salaries but pointed out that Worcester was the only school system in the state that hadn’t had vacancies in recent months.

“If our working environment can be better and more comfortable than others maybe the $600 won’t be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

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.