Smith calls for joint meeting with commissioners

By Barry Merrill

Tribune Publisher

School board member confident county will respond to school ‘emergency’

(See related stories on page 11 in this week’s Tribune)

Echoing a recent call by the Wayne County Commissioners Chair, At Large School Board member Raymond Smith asked the school board to meet jointly with the commissioners last week.

The call came near the end of a long, emotional discussion of how the schools might fund additional teaching staff at the county’s five low performing elementary schools as voted by this board in February. The discussion was the focus of last Monday evening’s monthly school board meeting.

Superintendent Dr. Michael Dunsmore made a presentation of the costs to meet the mandate of the board to match the controversial state-mandated K-3 class size reduction beginning this new school year. Last month Mr. Smith had motioned that Wayne County push up the smaller classes to improve progress at the lagging behind schools. 

Dr. Dunsmore went through a detailed presentation of the projected numbers of teachers needed at the five schools (23) at an average cost with benefits of $63,000 to be $1.45 million.

He also went through each school, detailing how they could re-purpose rooms at the five schools, moving some enhancement programs from class to class, rather than dedicating a room. Each school could accommodate the changes, based on current enrollment projections.

When the discussion turned to how the schools could pay for the teachers, Dr. Dunsmore said there were limited options. Taking the money out of the fund balance, cutting enhancement staff,  increasing class size of higher grade levels, or other staff cuts, were possibilities. If the county commissioners or state legislature appropriated funds, that could help, but at this point in the budget process, those could not be anticipated, he suggested.

Dr. Dunsmore said he would not recommend to the board any of the cuts in order to fund the additional teachers.

School Board members Jennifer Strickland and Chris West both spoke against adding the teachers at this time, repeating their opposition to the initial February motion.

Chairman Patricia Burden openly criticized the presentation, saying it was one-sided. (See related story.)

School Board member Arnold Flowers, who represents low-performing Spring Creek Elementary, said he saw last month’s motion as a step toward reducing class size, and at least a partial move would be important. Mr. West quickly retorted that was not the motion they approved, but Mr. Flowers said a compromise and perhaps more practical first step could be reached.

Mr. Flowers also pointed out that the legislature had provided additional funds to reduce class size, but given the option, Wayne County among other schools systems in the state had opted to use the money for enhancement to teacher funding instead.

Dr. Dunsmore also pointed out that the county schools were already under budget stress, citing cuts in low-wealth funding which were restored last year, but the county could be faced with this fall.

Mr. West and Mrs. Strickland both defended recent county initiatives to improve performance at the county’s low-performing schools, saying they had not had time to show significant improvement, but Mr. Smith retorted that the schools had been low performing for too long and more was needed.

Dr. Dunsmore agreed with the sentiment of Mr. Smith’s motion, saying, “Class size matters.”

Mr. West then motioned that the county schools wait on state funding before reducing class size, scheduled to be phased in staring in 2019-20. The motion failed with only Mr. West and Mrs. Strickland voting in favor.

Mr. Smith defended using the fund balance. “If the fund balance is intended for emergencies, I know of no greater emergency than the low-performing schools in this county.” He went on to say this was not just a school emergency but a county emergency.

While the schools’ fund balance is currently $5.5 million, the schools are suggested to maintain a fund balance of $4 million based on the size of their annual budget, in case of emergencies.

Mr. Smith went on to suggest the school board hold another joint meeting with the county commissioners to discuss the issues and funding. This motion stirred debate. Mr. Smith said increasing the 6% local teaching supplement was needed to attract staff to improve schools.

Mr. Flowers and School Board member Dr. Len Henderson said a meeting should wait until the school board was united on their budget requests for the year.

Mr. Smith’s motion for an immediate meeting was defeated.


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