IW schools budget draws mixed reactions

Published 6:28 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Isle of Wight County Schools’ proposed $79.3 million budget for the 2022-23 school year drew a mix of praise and criticism at a Feb. 24 public hearing.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton had initially proposed a budget of $78.2 million on Feb. 10, but has since recommended $1.1 million be added to fund nine school resource officers and seven testing coordinators.

Currently, there are four Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office deputies serving as SROs — one in each of the county’s two high schools and two middle schools. Patrol deputies also routinely visit the county’s five elementary schools, but aren’t stationed there every day. All SROs are presently funded as part of the Sheriff’s Office’s budget.

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Under an agreement Thornton and Sheriff James Clarke Jr. have proposed, Isle of Wight County Schools would take over funding the salaries, benefits, uniforms and equipment of the four existing SROs — plus the cost of hiring five more — during the 10 months those officers would be stationed in each of the county’s schools. The Sheriff’s Office would cover the cost of the officers’ vehicles and the cost of salaries, benefits, uniforms and equipment during the two summer months school isn’t in session.

Isle of Wight County Schools previously had officers in all nine of its schools in 2007, but former Sheriff Mark Marshall reassigned several of them during his 2012-18 tenure. According to Thornton, IWCS would need to come up with just over $623,000 to pay for nine deputies over a 10-month window.

The advantage of having the school system fund all nine positions, Thornton said, is a future sheriff wouldn’t be able to remove them without Isle of Wight County Schools’ say so.

The seven testing coordinators would allow the school system’s guidance counselors to spend less time proctoring Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams and more time counseling students.

A 2019 change in state law required school guidance counselors to spend at least 80% of their time counseling students. But “that’s just not a reality in schools,” Thornton said, particularly when factoring in a 2021 change in state law that added new “growth assessments” in reading and math for grades 3-8 to measure pandemic-related learning loss.

Students took one growth assessment last fall and are set to take another one this spring. Starting this September, Virginia students will take three growth assessments: one in the fall, one mid-year and one in the spring.

Under Thornton’s proposed budget additions, Carrollton and Hardy elementary schools would share a testing coordinator, as would Carrsville and Windsor elementary schools. The remaining five schools would each have their own testing coordinator, for an overall cost of just over $550,000 for all seven positions.

Four residents spoke at the public hearing.

The SROs are “absolutely a need,” said Herb De Groft, himself a former School Board member.

But De Groft objected to the $79.3 million in proposed total expenditures, which would amount to a 4.6% increase over the current year’s $75.8 million budget.

“Anything that is not required by the standards of quality you don’t need … you owe it as a part of your job to be responsible to the taxpayers that fund the school system,” De Groft said.

Virginia’s standards of quality mandate the minimum number of employees public school divisions must hire in each department based on student population, and allocate funding for those positions. According to IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, the school system currently budgets for 760 employees, 520 of whom are funded under the standards of quality.

“The state only funds a portion of the required positions,” Briggs said. “There is still a required local match to fully fund the SOQ positions.”

Citizen Laura Fletcher further called for more “transparency” in the budget in light of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order banning the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory” in Virginia’s public schools. Critical Race Theory, often abbreviated CRT, is a graduate-school-level discipline that argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minority groups. While school officials maintain CRT isn’t part of Isle of Wight’s curriculum, Fletcher and other parents have argued the idea is influencing the school system’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“I’d like to know precisely what instructional materials are being purchased, who produced them, what’s the company’s name … I’m looking to identify any materials or companies that push or promote Critical Race Theory and any of its tenets, diversity, equity and inclusion, or social/emotional learning,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher also spoke against the idea of school counselors and other staff involving themselves with students’ mental health.

“I think it’s actually dangerous for parents and families to have school-provided mental health professionals,” she said.

Citizen David Adams asked the School Board to allocate more funding for homebound instruction, which is provided to students who are confined at home or in a health care facility for periods that would prevent normal school attendance.

“As a parent of a student who utilized homebound services, I strongly encourage the board to consider adding some funds to that,” Adams said.

Lewis Edmonds praised the school system for its in-house career and technical education programs, but he asked the board to provide more funding for speech therapy and to take a closer look at the consulting fees associated with pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“My personal concerns with (equity), more so than anything else, is how effective it’s actually going to be in solving the issue of improving the lives of children that come from challenging backgrounds … . As somebody who’s dabbled in the consulting world, I can tell you that that’s always fraught with danger,” Edmonds said.

The School Board plans to vote on a final budget by April to submit to the county’s Board of Supervisors for funding. The School Board plans to ask the county for $26.68 million — a 0.1% decrease from the $26.71 million Isle of Wight contributed at the start of the current school year.

The school system is, however, expecting to receive more than $7 million in additional state funding based on an estimated 5,568 students and a provision in Virginia’s proposed budget that would give teachers an annual 5% raise, for a cumulative 10.25% increase over the 2022-2024 biennium.

Isle of Wight’s student population stood at 5,516 as of fall 2021. Isle of Wight County Schools’ proposed budget now includes a 6.6% raise for teachers.