The Hanover County School Board’s meeting room overflowed with concerned teachers, students, and parents Tuesday evening during a public hearing on Superintendent Dr. Jamelle Wilson’s $188.7 million budget proposal for the 2013-14 school year.
The budget closes a $5.4 million funding gap in part by eliminating 24 teacher positions, discontinuing rebates for dual enrollment courses and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, and restructuring the high school bell schedule.
High schools would shift from a seven-block schedule to eight blocks, and teachers would be expected to instruct six classes rather than their current five.
Salaries and benefits would remain the same.
This would be the fifth consecutive of school budget reductions.
Roughly 200 people squeezed into the meeting room to listen to the public comments, and 21 addressed the board.
Many objected to the proposed new high school schedule and increased workload, fearing detrimental effects on student learning and teacher retention.
Another recurring concern was a perceived lack of technology in schools.
No one blamed Wilson or the School Board for the current budget situation, and multiple speakers commended their efforts. Several speakers urged them to seek more funding from the Board of Supervisors, even if it needs to be through a higher real estate tax rate, for example.
Charmaine Monds, a Patrick Henry High School teacher, said the new bell schedule would “add stress to an already rigorous student and teacher load.”
“We don’t have bells and whistles in Hanover County. We are fiscally responsible, and I appreciate that. But now we’re taking away the one thing that we have always counted on—quality of instruction. There is a difference between being frugal and being cheap,” she said.
“It’s being sold as a lowering of the tax burden, when in reality it’s the lowering of the quality of life,” Monds concluded.
Michelle Schmidt, a parent, mentioned a new group that has formed in response to budget concerns, the Friends of Hanover Schools.
“I see the Friends of Hanover Schools really as able to be a political watchdog and outreach and voice to say, ‘Stop cutting.’ We can’t sustain anymore cuts,” she said.
“When I was buying [a home] here in Hanover, the message was you can buy anywhere, because it’s quality schools everywhere. There’s not the dichotomy of east and west like we have in other counties surrounding us. I would hate to see us lose that,” she added.
Schmidt suggested that everyone work together in a “countywide technology push” to raise funds for equipment.
Chris Pace, a Hanover High teacher, said students are using Windows 2003 software, and his school has about 300 computers for nearly 1,300 students.
“This ratio is unacceptable in the 21st century,” he said.
Pace said the Friends of Hanover Schools put out a survey, which received 116 responses. When asked about “instances where the budget has hurt classroom instruction,” 56 percent of respondents indicated, “I see examples all the time,” according to Pace.
If the high schools moved to six teaching periods without extra pay, 35 percent of respondents said they would “absolutely” consider leaving the school system, and 30 percent said they would be “likely” to consider doing so.
“Eight high school blocks is a fabulous idea. Teaching six classes in them is not. I offer you an alternative: [teaching] five of eight, with a school-wide resource block as a sixth period in which students can get extra individual attention or small group attention,” Pace said.
Patrick Henry teacher Kevin Trent noted that his classroom used to have five computers, but he’s down to one.
“It is difficult to teach 21st century skills when even 20th century technology has vanished,” he said.
He thanked the School Board for recently enacting a policy that allows students to bring in personal electronic devices, which has helped somewhat.
Trent said he was in contact with former colleagues at Albemarle County Public Schools, which made the move to eight high school blocks a few years ago.
“A math teacher stated that his school went from an orderly system of remediation to a jigsaw puzzle-like schedule that allows very little remediation time,” he said.
“He and his colleagues, and I quote directly, ‘have found an alarming trend. Work that is assigned outside of class is coming in at a lower and lower rate from our struggling students,’” Trent said.
April Rhyne, a Hanover Center for Trades and Technology teacher, supported the move to eight periods.
“With all of the new requirements and additional requirements for kids to graduate, between foreign language and credentialing, there’s just not enough time in the day,” she said.
“It would give kids more options,” Rhyne said of the eighth period.
John Szewczyk, speaking on behalf of Hanover Professional Educators, said many top teachers have contacted him about the proposed scheduling change.
“They’re telling me that they’re over-burdened. They’re overtaxed and overworked,” he said.
“Now they’re being asked to teach a sixth period or sixth block without any additional compensation. As you can imagine, morale has been affected. What’s worse, many of these excellent instructional staff are telling me they are actively looking for jobs in other school districts or in some cases outside of education altogether,” he added.
“The real problem here is insufficient funding. Dr. Wilson was asked to do the impossible. She was asked to close a $5.4 million funding gap, and she did that, and by the way, of all the people who contacted me, not one person said a single negative thing about Dr. Wilson or about any of the School Board members,” Szewczyk said.
Patti Jackson, a parent of Hanover Public Schools alumni, said, “You have a responsibility to go back to the Board of Supervisors and reflect what you’re hearing here tonight. You should be the advocates for our children.
“You should stand up to that Board of Supervisors and tell them that you shouldn’t have to accept yet another $5 million cut to the school system.”
Nathaniel Hall, an Atlee High School junior, said the elimination of AP and IB reimbursements could prevent some students from pursuing college credit through these courses.
“Any student that is a full IB diploma candidate will have to pay a minimum of $600 to achieve that opportunity. … Not everyone in this county is financially strong enough to afford to be able to have this gateway to college and higher education,” he said.