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Council ‘disgusted’ by state, feds lack of support for schools

SALEM – Individual council members didn’t know whether to be angry or upset by the shortage of state and federal money for schools. Mostly, they were disgusted.

They expressed their dismay at the April 22 Salem City Council meeting after Salem School Board Chairman Sally Southard explained how her board had to slash the Fiscal Year 2013-2014 School Budget by cutting instruction, teachers whose positions were not filled and other ways that impact students in the long run.

Angela Smith, Noel Gibson, center, and Nikki Phelps look at pottery bowls donated by Salem High School art students at Dessert with the Arts on April 22. The PTSA-sponsored event with an art yard sale, silent auction and other events raised about $1,500 for the art department.
Angela Smith, Noel Gibson, center, and Nikki Phelps look at pottery bowls donated by Salem High School art students at Dessert with the Arts on April 22. The PTSA-sponsored event with an art yard sale, silent auction and other events raised about $1,500 for the art department.
I don’t know whether to be incredibly angry or be very, very upset,” said Council Member Lisa Garst.”I’m totally flabbergasted,” added Council Member Jane Johnson. “More people need to be talking to the state.

Vice Mayor John Givens, who presided over the meeting in the absence of Mayor Randy Foley, was succinct in laying the blame: “Federal and state people are skirting their duties, expecting us to make it up,” he said, referring the deficit caused by reduced funds, especially in needed areas such as special education for young children.

Federal funds did increase by $561,484 but that was mainly for Regional Adult Basic Education and GED, not for younger children’s special education and Title 1 “Where the sequestration hits the hardest,” Southard said.

The $44.9-million school budget unanimously adopted by the school board on March 26 is $829,779 over the current school budget, and the increase is mainly in debt service for the new South Salem School that is under construction, Southard pointed out.

Southard emphasized the school board “has nowhere else to cut. The past five years of state reductions while fixed costs increased led to some new efficiencies,” she told them, “but we have also cut away at our core business of teaching and learning.”

School officials already cut $2.3-million between 2010 and 2014 budget through a variety of ways, including not filling positions when teachers and staff retire or leave. For instance, one history teacher’s position at Salem High School will not be filled.

In the current budget, reductions come from:
• reducing utility budgets by $47,000,
• eliminating science museum outreach programs for $12,285,
• cutting the instructional supply budget by $32,000,
• eliminating the Summer Governors School for $10,000,
• reducing the remediation budget (to help students who are behind) by $8,541,
• cutting the Salem High School athletics account by $4,639, and
• continuing to require 12-month licensed school staff to take four-day furloughs, for a savings of almost $40,000 last school year.

The school board also eliminated the Aspiring Principal training program for $5,000, the Third-Grade Strings program that cut $3,750.
Even though Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed a 2-percent raise for school personnel, the Salem School system could not come up with the required local match to secure the state’s share, Southard said.

“Our employees deserve that and much more for helping see the division and the students we serve through the Great Recession.”

She added that the school division plans to apply for a Strategic Compensation Grant to make a one-time bonus available to teachers. The grant application isn’t due until July, so it would be well into the next school year before Salem Schools know if they will receive the grant, Southard added.

She thanked the City of Salem for its local money support in the past – next year it is budgeted at $18.9-million, the same as last year – adding that the school board knows the city cannot make up the difference in the loss of state and federal money.

The even worse news was Southard and School Superintendent Alan Seibert believe Fiscal Year 2015 will bring “another significant state-required increase in the Virginia Retirement System contributions by employers…It is very likely that we will need to ask for an increase in local support this time next year.”

About the author

Meg Hibbert

Meg Hibbert held the position of editor of the Salem Times-Register and The New Castle Record from July 1999 - July 2014. She won more than two dozen awards from the Virginia Press Association for feature writing, columns, business articles, health and environmental writing and education coverage. She and her husband, Bill, live in Salem and are avid University of Georgia Bulldogs.

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