I-SS administrators, teachers and parents ask lawmakers for more money, local control
PHOTO: I-SS Superintendent Brady Johnson addresses state lawmakers and Iredell County commissioners during the district's annual legislative breakfast.
BY KARISSA MILLER
Iredell-Statesville Schools’ administrators, teachers and parents presented their legislative priorities for 2018 on Thursday during the district’s annual breakfast for local lawmakers.
State Sen. Dan Barrett, Reps. Rena Turner and John Fraley, and Iredell County commissioners attended the meeting at the Unity Center in Statesville.
“We’re very supportive of our schools and wish we could make happen what they need,” Turner said.
Turner and Fraley are working together on a handful of school-related issues, including early college funding, school calendar flexibility and performance letter grades.
The lawmakers provided some insight for the 100 or so people in attendance on why a bill that would have allowed local school boards to set academic calendars “got stuck in the Senate” after being approved by the House.
Explaining that a leadership change stalled the process, Turner said she was optimistic that lawmakers will provide the calendar flexibility during the short legislative session in May.
Superintendent Brady Johnson and school board members have identified five areas for state lawmakers to address to help ensure the system’s success. They include:
• Helping school districts meet the state’s class-size reduction mandate;
• Amending the A-F report card;
• Granting school district’s calendar flexibility;
• Providing adequate funding for 21 century schools; and
• Enhancing state support for school district facilities.
The Cost of the Class-Size Reduction Mandate
The N.C. General Assembly has mandated smaller class sizes for kindergarten through third grade, beginning with the 2018-2019 school year.
While I-SS officials support smaller class sizes, they contend that the N.C. General Assembly has not provided the additional funding needed to hire the extra teachers and add the classroom space it would require.
Compliance with the mandate would force I-SS to spend $2.9 million to hire 48.5 teachers. Measures have been put in place this school year to phase in class-size changes next year. As a result, the school system is already experiencing the affects, with reductions to enhancement programs such as, art, music and PE and increased class sizes for grades 4-12.
Julie Baur, a music teacher at Woodland Heights Elementary, shared a story of the profound impact music class had on one student’s life.
A young child “grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive environment, and was constantly called ‘worthless.’ ”
The child believed those painful words until he entered elementary school and was able to get involved in music, which gave the student an outlet “to belong, to express, excel, and to develop self-esteem,” Baur explained.
That inspired the student to continue with music and eventually go to college. Today, that student is the music teacher and the one giving the hand up to others.
“Music saved my life,” the student said as an adult.
Amend the A-F Report Card
Parent and Our Schools First representative Beth Packman gave the elected officials an envelope that contained a letter grade, representing “one decision that you made while in political office.”
The letter grade was based on staff input. Officials didn’t get a choice on who provided input. Next, Packman asked them to hold up their letter grade, which ranged from A to F.
The activity demonstrated that sometimes the overall letter grade you receive doesn’t paint an accurate picture of you; yet it is the predominant factor that the public sees and associates with you.
Each school is given a grade each year based on school achievement (80 percent) and school growth (20 percent). I-SS asking state lawmakers to amend the calculation formula.
“It can create a negative parent and public perception,” the superintendent said.
The Case for School Calendar Flexibility
North Carolina is one of five of the 50 states that doesn’t allow local school boards to set a start and end date for their school calendar, according to a statewide report.
“I was intrigued because press and representatives have reported that tourism is a major roadblock,” West Iredell High School Principal Gordon Palmer said. “Yet, Florida with arguably one of the highest rates of tourism on the East Coast, allows for flexibility.”
Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Melanie Taylor explained how the district’s three early college programs, two of which are housed inside traditional schools, begin school three weeks earlier than the traditional schools, which must adhere to the state school calendar law.
Those differing start dates cause I-SS to duplicate bus routes and bring back support staff early, thus misaligning school operations. Also, students must return after winter break and take high stakes exams.
Providing Adequate Funding for 21 Century Schools
I-SS is struggling to maintain lofty standards in an environment of tightening budgets, district officials said.
“We have seen an increase in spending in education over the years. Typically, a majority of those increases have gone to salary and benefits. We have more money, but it’s more money to spend on existing staff,” explained Chief Finance Officer Melissa Wike.
Wike thanked lawmakers for taking steps to increase teacher and principal pay. Then she asked lawmakers to look into increasing pay for classified employees, which include teacher assistants, custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
“That’s the segment of our employees who hasn’t been a top priority for the General Assembly,” Wike said. “They’re invaluable to us.”
Lake Norman Elementary School data manager Lindsey Riebeling said that five of the 10 teacher assistants at the school must work two jobs to make ends meet.
“We have a teacher assistant who has worked at our school for 20 years that is living in poverty,” Riebeling said.
She also described an employee who is a single mom whose take home pay is around $400 after she pays for her children’s health insurance.
Enhance State Support for School Facilities
Currently, the priorities related to the portfolio of schools in Iredell County is over a billion dollars, said Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Planning Kenny Miller.
Miller is recommending that lawmakers provide counties with increased annual support for school facility needs by restoring the portion of Education Lottery proceeds designated for public school capital projects to 40 percent.
Secondly, voters should be allowed to vote on a statewide school capital bond. This would provide a one-time investment of dollars to local counties to address school facility capital needs.
He said that the district’s maintenance crew is running a skeleton crew and is working with around half of the technicians employed before the recession.