Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Johnston had one word he emphasized a lot at Thursday's pre-budget School Board work session – uncertainty.

Johnston said with the COVID-19 pandemic still going on there is a lot of uncertainty with much of the upcoming school budget.

One thing Johnston pointed out was the drop in enrollment this year, especially for kindergarten.

"(Out of the enrollment drop) 113 students would have been kindergartners," Johnston said. "The question is are they going to show up in August for kindergarten? How do we budget for that potential increase? If they don't return,  how do we plan for that? ...I assure you this, come August we're not going to be able to hire 10 or 12 Kindergarten teachers – that's not going to happen. It's an uncertainty. I don't have anything else to share with you right now, because we don't know. We need to be prepared, but we don't know."

Johnston did say if they have a lot of extra kindergarten students that they might not have as many in the first grade, and they could possibly move the first grade teachers to become kindergarten teachers.

Johnston said an enrollment drop is happening at schools throughout the region noted that there was a drop of 44,296 students in public schools across the state. He said that typically a drop in enrollment could affect their state revenue, but legislators are talking about not doing that this year due to the pandemic.

Johnston also said as far as the state revenue is concerned he "would not anticipate a substantial drop in state revenue. I would also not anticipate a substantial increase in state revenue."

Johnston also looked at teacher salaries in the county compared to other school divisions in the region. Shenandoah County ranks fourth out of nine area school divisions for teachers in their first four years. However, they are seventh at five years, and sixth at 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 years. Their ranking since last year has dropped in every category except for the first four years, 15 and 20.

"We are not going to attract teachers and staff if our salaries are not competitive," Johnston said.

There was a public hearing held after the work session and Jeff Rudy, the Shenandoah County Education Association president, was the only speaker.

Rudy said he would like to see a 4% raise for all teachers plus a step, which is the term used for matching a teachers years of experience.

"While it may seem strange for the SCEA to be here tonight – virtually, of course – to ask for a raise for all teachers and staff, Governor (Ralph) Northam recently announced that our state revenue has greatly improved and he would like to give a 2% raise from the state for the upcoming school year," Rudy said. "As we all know, the Shenandoah County Public Schools budget is based on both funding from the state and the local, and the SCEA is very conscious of this when we advocate for pay raises from you here tonight. I do not think it is a secret that the Shenandoah County Public Schools pay scale for teachers and staff is falling behind our neighboring counties and is, in fact, simply terrible compared to counties just a short drive away, including Fauquier, Loudoun and others who are luring our dedicated teachers and staff away for greener pastures. Therefore, using the current Virginia House Bill 1915 as a model, the SCEA is asking Dr. Johnston and Shenandoah County Public Schools to match Governor Northam’s proposed raise from Richmond and add a step as well. This 4% raise and step will move Shenandoah County Public Schools to be more competitive locally, allowing us to make minute gains against Fauquier, Loudoun and other nearby counties as well. It, too, will help soften our recent 20% health insurance increase that we’re still scrambling to find money to make up the difference.

"The 4% raise and step that we are asking for will point us in the right direction away from a nearly $8,500 below-the-national average pay deficit, moves us away from 32nd in the country in teacher pay, make us more competitive locally, and – most importantly – -moves us toward respect and dignity for our profession as educators."

Johnston said he will present the school budget at the Feb. 11 School Board hearing. A work session is scheduled for  Feb. 18 and at the March 11 meeting there will be a public hearing and School Board members will vote to approve the budget.

Contact Tommy Keeler Jr. at tkeeler@nvdaily.com