NEWARK – Requests for competitive teacher salaries, maintaining small class sizes and technology funding highlighted a public budget input session hosted by the Worcester County Board of Education this week.
On Tuesday, the school system hosted its annual public budget input session via conference call. Speakers stressed the importance of funding teacher salaries at a level that would allow the school system to retain and recruit highly qualified educators.
“Our success in education comes from the high-quality teaching and the positive, loving and supportive environment teachers create for our children every single day, our current situation being no exception,” Showell Elementary School parent Jennifer Kavanagh said. “Simply put, our children’s education would not be what it is today without these outstanding people. Please show them we cannot do this without them.”
Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert kicked off Tuesday’s meeting with an overview of the school system’s $114 million budget. Worcester County funds the vast majority — 77% — of the budget. More than 85% of the school system’s budget is spent on salaries and fixed charges.
“We’re a people organization,” Tolbert said.
Tolbert said negotiations with the Worcester County Teachers Association had not yet started but said that with the estimated 5% health insurance cost increase, a step increase and cost of living adjustment would cost the school system $2.5 million.
Superintendent Lou Taylor thanked parents for calling in to Tuesday’s meeting and said the school system always welcomed public feedback.
“Despite the challenges this pandemic has dealt school systems all across the country one thing is clear — our community remains committed to providing the best education possible for the young people of Worcester County,” he said.
Speakers, representing each facility’s school improvement advisory committee (SIAC), asked the school board to focus on competitive teacher salaries, small class sizes and technology needs going forward. They also asked that materials of instruction be maintained.
“During our distance learning, we have found that the addition of the iPad, Apple television and the instructional material have helped to bridge any gaps we may have endured during these trying times,” said Kim Jackson, representing Buckingham Elementary’ s SIAC. “In the future it’d be great to maintain these additions to continue meeting the needs of our student population.”
The distance learning currently underway also prompted requests for additional bandwidth.
“We are encouraging the board members to continue to support technology and secure additional bandwidth to reduce and eliminate connectivity issues,” said parent Jen Backof, speaking for Berlin Intermediate School. “With the major push of iPads throughout the county and the virtual learning that has taken place during this pandemic we’ve had no choice but to make a monumental push forward with technology. Teachers and students have been impressive with the technology provided thus far and the sky is the limit as long as it’s supported in the future.”
Parents also advocated for continued after-school programs, particularly in the south end of the county, and for a few specific items, such as a new intercom system for Stephen Decatur High School.
Teacher Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association, spoke on behalf of her peers. She said they’d adapted over and over again as plans for schools had changed during the pandemic. Shockley-Lynch said teachers were working harder than ever before.
“This 2020 school year has added a significant amount of work to their already full plate,” she said. “The amount of time needed to prepare for virtual lessons is immense. It’s a totally different skill set to manage Zoom, screen sharing, monitor 25 little screens, checking to see who gets it, who doesn’t, not to mention the stress of ‘are these kids alright? Are they eating? Are they home alone?’ No matter what gets thrown at our teachers they never give up because they’re dedicated to the students of Worcester County.”
Shockley-Lynch said teachers were being asked to do more than they could handle but they kept trying.
“This dedication deserves being rewarded,” she said. “Our teachers deserve to advance on their salary scale and receive an appropriate cost of living. We will never be able to afford to pay them for the unbelievable amount of time they have put in trying to accomplish the task of teaching virtually.”
Taylor said he appreciated everyone’s input and thanked those who participated in the meeting. He echoed Shockley-Lynch’s praise of teachers and staff.
“I truly see how people are making a difference,” he said. “They’re making a difference for our young people, 6,800 kids that come, that we’re entrusted with, each and every day here in Worcester County public schools. I’m very, very excited to see them again soon. For some of our kids it’s been nine months. It’s not easy on any of us but we will continue to bond together as a school system no matter what job we have and support our kids both in school and through a virtual learning platform.”