Shenandoah schools seek raises, better efficiencies with proposed budget

WOODSTOCK- Shenandoah County Public Schools is asking for more money in an effort to be competitive in the face of a growing teacher shortage, growing enrollment and students with greater needs.

Superintendent Mark Johnston proposed a $67.4 million budget to the School Board Thursday for the 2018-2019 school year, an increase of $4.1 million from this year’s budget.

“The inequities in the division that have emerged over time are due to continued under allocation of revenue for operations from reduced state revenues and limited local revenues, forcing difficult decisions which have not been remedied,” Johnston said. “These students are the folks who will be caring for us, don’t we want the best. I know I do.”

One example he cited was staff reduction during the recession.

The proposed budget includes a drama/English teacher and a science/physical education teacher at Stonewall Jackson, a math teacher at Strasburg High School, and two school counselor positions, one at Ashby Lee and one at W.W. Robinson elementary schools. The counselor to student ratio in the schools is as high as 751 to one.

Johnston is also asking for money to hire four special education teachers and four special education paraprofessionals in response to a 24 percent increase in the number of students in the division who qualify for special education services.

Salaries and benefit make up 86 percent of the district’s budget.

“This is not surprising. We are a people organization,” Johnston said.

“Our staff transports students, provides nursing care, teach, support our teachers, provide administrative services, keep our schools optimal for teaching and learning, feed our students sometimes their only meal of the day,” Johnston said.

The division for the last two years has experienced teachers leaving the schools at a 15 percent rate each year. That is the second highest rate in the region, trailing only Winchester which had a 20 percent turnover rate last year.

Shenandoah County school employees did not receive a salary increase this year.  The district was only one of two among nine in the region surrounding Shenandoah County that did not give teachers or support staff a raise.

One of the reasons identified as to why teachers were leaving was salary and health insurance contribution. Johnston said 86 percent of the teachers who left were rated either exemplary or proficient.

“We need to keep our teachers,” he said.

He pointed to the district’s 96 percent graduation rate as further proof.

“Our graduation rate is the envy of the state,” Johnston said.

In an effort to retain those teachers, Johnston is asking for an additional $3.2 million for salary increases.

This would allow teachers’ wages to increase  to the median average salary of surrounding divisions plus two percent.

That two percent is necessary, he said, because in July he anticipates other area districts will again give a salary increase and Shenandoah County schools will again find themselves behind and forced to catch up.

He is also asking for non-teachers a step increase for successful performance, plus 3 percent.

That would just make up for lost wages, bringing salaries to a level they should be at, Johnston said.

Board member Shelby Kline offered her first impression after hearing the budget presentation.

Dr. Johnston and his senior administrative staff created a needs-based budget for both students and staff that is forward-moving and innovative in order to keep pace with surrounding counties. In regards to system efficiencies, Dr. Johnston’s out of the box thinking will save the division money as well as provide for better utilization of the buildings on the southern campus,” Kline said.

Parents Alliance for Strong Schools, a local advocacy group, also weighed in.

Dan Walsh, president of PASS, said the budget “seems to address some of our main concerns,” although more review will follow in the next few days.

“We have been particularly concerned about teacher compensation, given the statewide teacher shortage and our high levels of turnover, Walsh said.  “Our schools have cumulative unmet needs that have built up over the years. We are hopeful that this will begin to address them.”