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Nelson school officials discuss fiscal year '23 budget expectations, student behavior trends

During the Nelson County School Board’s meeting on Nov. 11, staff discussed the 2022-2023 budget process.

Shannon Irvin, assistant superintendent for instruction, updated the school board about what might impact the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, one being that the composite index, a state formula determining money to schools, will change and could have an effect on how much state funding is provided to the schools.

“It’s to our benefit that we have the lowest composite index possible,” she said. “The composite indexes are mostly impacted by the value of real property in the county and so it’s all in relationship to real property across the state of Virginia. So it’s hard to say where ours will be and I’ve got my fingers crossed that will drop a little bit and give us more state funding.”

She added that the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) board has certified rates to the General Assembly at a much lower rate for the next two years.

The VRS had 27.5% an investment earnings and they smoothed rates over a period of time so there aren’t large increases and decreases, Irvin said, but for the coming year NCPS rates will go from 16.62% for teachers down to 14.76% — almost a 2% decrease in rates.

This decrease will provide the school with a couple hundred thousand dollars in savings that could be used toward an increase in salaries for staff members, Irvin said.

She said she is a little worried about the division’s health insurance renewal because of the possible effects of COVID-19.

“I know that there’s been lots and lots of testing and testing charges are charged to the individual’s health insurance plans,” she said. “I do know that some people have delayed going to the doctor or going and having optional surgeries done, but we had a big decrease last year in rates and I don’t know that we should anticipate that we would have the same thing occur again.”

She said enrollment in the fiscal year 2023 is forecasted to drop to 1,444 students and then again decrease in fiscal year 2024 to 1,453 students.

Pending General Assembly approval, minimum wage will be $11 per hour beginning in January, she said, and will increase to $12 per hour in 2023 and by 2026, it will be $15 per hour.

“We will have some positions that we pay on a daily rate basis that we will have to adjust to meet minimum wage,” she said.

The board will hold its first work session on the budget in January. During its meeting the board held a public hearing on the preliminary budget process in which Nelson County Board of Supervisors Chair Ernie Reed spoke about increasing wages for staff members.

“Hopefully you can propose some increases to salaries that might help bring the salary scales to a more beneficial level for the teachers here,” Reed said.

He said commitments to the mental health and the emotional wellbeing of students has fallen to the schools.

“And the responsibility now has, by attrition, become yours and so I would certainly like to see resources commit to help improve mental health with the students,” Reed said. “Also we know that small student-teacher ratios and having enough key staff so you have both mentors and role models with students is key for communication and recognition of the students — their successes and their problems and everything else, so I’m looking hopefully to see that that would be included.”

On the topic of school behavior, Superintendent Martha Eagle said to add to the instructional challenges students are facing, they are also having a tough time adjusting to being in school for the five days a week and into the high expectations for proper behavior.

“After two years of being isolated and only accountable to their home structures, we are seeing several who are being impacted tremendously,” she told the board. “These past two unorthodox years of school have allowed for more social media and less peer socialization, both resulting in more peer conflict when returning to full in-person learning.”

Poor social skills coupled with mental and emotional health struggles for a vast majority of students have resulted in poor decisions, unfortunately, for their behavior, she said.

“So we’ve seen an increase in vaping, with the use of drugs, defiance, and disrespect for authority and overall aggressive behaviors,” she said. “I do remind everybody, as we discuss this, though, our schools are a mirror of our communities, and any community struggles, any society struggles we will find in our schools so we need to work to support and understand that.”

Administrators and staff are holding high expectations, examining the processes for this discipline and taking a strong line to deal with many of the hard core actions of students, she said.

“We also are working on supporting our students and their mental health needs by reimplementing the therapeutic day treatment, or TDT program,” she said.

The new director, Jennifer McCormick, will attend the board’s December meeting to give further updates about that program.

“One of the strengths of Nelson County Public Schools staff is their ability to connect with students and to go above and beyond to take care of them,” Eagle said. “And I really appreciate that and admire that in our staff here in Nelson.”

During public comments, Rebecca Allen, president of the Nelson County Education Association, said the NCEA conducted a morale survey from Oct. 19 through Oct. 29 and said data shows four themes impacting the morale of NCPS employees with the first one being work stress and anxiety.

She said this stress comes from additional responsibilities and expectations, which limits staff’s effectiveness in teaching students.

“Number two is lack of consistent communication and execution of directives creates frustration and confusion amongst staff members,” she said. “Number three: student behavioral issues and lack of adequate consequences leaves staff feeling unsupported.”

She said she was pleased to hear about the new information regarding the reinstatement of the therapeutic day treatment program.

“Our specific request for this evening is that the school board reinstate COVID leave for all employees. We ask any COVID related leave taken between Aug. 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022 be covered by the division with no penalty to the employee,” Allen said.

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