When Orange County School Board Chair Sherrie Page asked if there were any additions to the agenda at Monday’s meeting, school superintendent Dr. Cecil Snead clearly was excited about adding one item under the “superintendent’s reports and recommendations.”
Less than 30 minutes later, it was clear why.
Through a combination of steady enrollment figures, vacant positions and more clarity about state funding, Orange County Schools will be able to provide staff their 2020-21 step raises after all.
In June, teachers and staff learned they would not be receiving their step increases this fiscal year.
When the board approved its operating budget at the June 1 meeting, Snead said the administration chose to maintain the current staff at the expense of the step increase. Including the step would have required a reduction in work force, board minutes note.
At the time, Page said she was “saddened” that the school division couldn’t provide raises to teachers in the coming year—a goal that seemed well within reach back in January.
“We believe that trying to keep our people employed outweighs taking a chance with step increases that increase our budget, which could ultimately force us to find measures to make cuts due to revenue shortages,” Snead added later.
In his presentation to the board Monday, Snead said initially schools had to “tighten up” their budgets amid the COVID-19 public health crisis, with uncertainty surrounding sales tax and lottery funding, as well as enrollment figures—which shape state funding allocations.
“Staff has been working hard to assess where we are,” he said. “Had we lost enrollment, we’d be in a very difficult place right now. We have to keep educating students and be fiscally responsible.”
But in reviewing the figures the schools leadership determined they had something they wanted to bring to the board as soon as possible.
“I think you’ll find some things in here, you’ll want to act on today,” Dr. Snead told the board. “We appreciate your patience for not having a lot of information in advance. This just got cooked up over the weekend and today.”
In his presentation to the school board, Orange County Schools’ Chief Financial Officer Gary Honaker noted that the schools’ average daily membership (4,750) was within one of the budgeted projection.
“We had no idea back in January, February or March, what our enrollment would be, but that turns out to be very good news for us,” Honaker noted.
Steady enrollment, coupled with clearer projected sales tax revenues, unfilled and unexpectedly vacant positions all created a budgetary bonus for the schools.
“Because of these factors, we’d like to recommend a step-increase for all eligible employees effective with the October payroll,” Honaker said.
District 4 school board member Bette Winter asked if providing the raises and meeting the salary step would prevent open positions from being filled in the future?
“I don’t anticipate that being an issue,” Honaker said. “There are so many unknowns, but I don’t anticipate that.”
District 5 school board member Jim Hopkins was happy to hear the news, but questioned how much money the raises would cost.
Right at $400,000, Honaker said.
“Also, in our discussions about presenting this in a way that we could keep our county whole, I mean, keep all our employees, we were so concerned based upon our forecast that we’d be able to keep everyone back in the original forecast,” Snead said. “This is a glorious time for us. There had been a lot of worries.”
Snead said school staff constantly worry about enrollment figures, but added, “We feel we have enough margin for error that we can give our employees this step with confidence. This would be a year where they thought they would lose a step. They won’t.”
Page gave credit to Dr. Snead, Honaker and human resources director Yvonne Dawson for their efforts to reinstate the step increase.
Hopkins said that while he was happy the schools would be able to provide step increases for staff, he also was pleased the schools maintained steady enrollment, which meant maintaining staffing levels and keeping employees.
“By keeping our enrollment, we’re keeping our employees,” he said. “Other counties are losing students and losing employees. We’re keeping our employees and that’s just as important to me.”
Page credited the administration’s hybrid model for the 2020-21 school year that includes the all-online Virtual OC platform.
“I think that plan got us to where we are,” she said.
District 1 school board member Carol Couch thanked the community for having faith in the school division to send their children to Orange County Schools—in whatever capacity—this fall.
The board voted unanimously to support the increase, followed by scattered applause in the board meeting room.
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