Members of the Lincoln County Board of Education invited N.C. Sen. Ted Alexander and Lincoln County N.C. Rep. Jason Saine to a legislative breakfast Friday morning to discuss recommendations for legislative actions that will ensure student success at the state and local level. These recommendations included seven items.
The first was continuing to refine A-F school performance grades, which was opened by Lincoln County Schools superintendent Dr. Lory Morrow, who told the senator and state representative that growth was very important to the district as it’s a true measure of how students are learning and how much they’re learning. Morrow and the board members would like to see the percentages changed from the current calculated 80% on proficiency and 20% growth to a 50/50 percentage.
“Yes, proficiency is important and we need to be held accountable, but we also really want to be able to have a truer, more balanced measure of the progress that our students are making,” she said.
Brian Clary, who was recently named the district’s chief of human resources but for the past 13 years has served as an administrator with Lincoln County Schools, most recently as principal of West Lincoln High School, provided data on the Battleground Elementary School in the district and reiterated that a 50/50 split would be a lot more helpful, especially with increased poverty.
“This school represents the highest poverty in Lincoln County and they are a D school but they met growth,” he said. “They were 46.7% proficient, but they were 78% in growth. That’s huge. With that calculation, they’d have a grade of 62 which would be a C and it would not be low performing. You’re rewarding what the teachers are doing for their students.”
Saine asked what this would be for morale, how improved would it be in terms of going into the coming years.
“With teachers, growth is what we look for, we don’t really talk about proficiency,” Clary said. “With growth, proficiency will come. So, I think morale would jump. If you’re in a school with high poverty and you see your prediction scores, for example, at West Lincoln High School, I just got through doing our prediction scores for our English II and we’re predicted to score between 48 and 50% proficient. That’s sort of a kick in the gut, but on the flip side, the growth can be done very well. I think morale would be way more positive.”
During last year’s school year, 17 out of 21 local schools met or exceeded growth.
“We also have students who maybe start here (showing a picture she had drawn on a pad of paper), already proficient, but we are looking at growth, because if there’s a negative growth number, they may go down in growth that year, but they’re still proficient,” board member Heather Rhyne said. “So, what did we do for that child that year? Does that make sense?”
Assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, Dr. Heath Belcher, added that when a school doesn’t meet growth or the proficiency is low performing, there’s legislative requirements that go along with it.
“So, for example, with this particular school that Brian was referencing, they’re great teachers but some of the morale was that they were identified as low performing,” he said. “Then you have career teachers, folks that have done a good job but because of those legislative requirements, have to have additional observations and so on, so there’s more grunt work that has to go along with that.”
The next priority was to improve pay and benefits for all school personnel, which Belcher announced saying that he expressed appreciation for the principal pay scale which has been beneficial for the district, and that the teacher pay scale is going in the right direction.
“I feel like where we are at now is with our classified staff, assistant teachers, bus drivers, custodians, clerical workers, who all do the grunt work,” he said. “The thing is that we’re in a booming economy and that’s helpful, but the problem is that it increases opportunities and options for some of our employees. What we’re experiencing is that a lot of our classified staff who have not received any pay increases from the state from pre-recession time are now going to find employment elsewhere. They’re giving up a vested 10 plus years in the school system to the private sector and making more money at an hourly rate and making up that difference in what they’re giving up with some of the benefits that’s offered through the state.”
That bus mechanics and other skilled laborers have been coming to work for LCS at entry level positions and essentially getting trained by the district and then they go to work at another industry and get large raises was addressed by Eric Eaker, Lincoln County Schools chief of operations, and assistant superintendent Dr. Aaron Allen. Lincoln County Schools, Eaker said, has not been fully staffed in their bus garage all year because of the turnover. This problem isn’t just with skilled labor, Allen added, because they haven’t seen a pay raise in several years and that people are not as interested in benefits and retirement as they once were, the hourly rate was more important.
Saine said that he appreciated being told of this concern and that he imagined that this was going to become a priority across the state and not just in education but across the board.
“My sense is that there is a determination on the part to begin to address those areas,” Alexander said. “We did a small amount, it wasn’t much in this past budget, which I think is in limbo right now. I think there’s a recognition, as far as the teachers go, now I think it’s beginning to shift to the thought that we need to take care of some of these left out employees. I’m seeing an undercurrent that we need to start looking at these people.”
Allen addressed increasing flexibility in funding for positions to ensure student safety and to continue to address mental health needs.
“We’d like to see some flexibility because, in this past cycle, there were grants specific for only this service or this partnership that not all districts would necessarily be able to use or capitalize upon or have it existing already,” he said. “If the grants were in the future, if this is a priority for the general assembly, is to allow us to apply for what we need instead of it being categorical. We’re very appreciative of the funding we’ve received, especially with the SROs in the middle school, which we couldn’t do on our own.”
Allen asked that the legislators consider the issue with Medicaid availability for telemedicine services (medicine and psychiatry services) for which there’s a barrier now. Right now, LCS is operating a virtual clinic at Battleground and G.E. Massey through a grant which they’re hoping to extend and expand to other schools.
D. Todd Wulfhorst, vice-chairperson for the board of education, addressed the need to increase State support for school facility construction and renovation. Saine said that the $13 million earmarked to go to Lincoln County is still sitting in budget limbo and that when they go back in April, they’re going to try again.
“There’s a lot of money sitting on the table that can go to communities like ours,” he said. “I realize that $13 million is only a portion of what you need.”
Alexander said that they’re looking at getting a similar amount coming in bi-annually over a total of eight years and he said he thought that this was the first time the state has committed to start putting money at the local level for buildings and that it was a significant investment to help catch up on projects. Both legislators expressed their commitment to help LCS with their efforts to get capital projects done.
Belcher addressed refining the school transportation formula to ensure Local Education Agencies have the opportunity to provide transportation for innovative programs such as after school STEM activities. The assistant superintendent, Rhyne and Davis also discussed the board’s request for an increase in state investment in key allotment areas including academically intellectually gifted, english as a second language, exceptional children, technology and transportation.
“I think that’s a complex thing for legislators to understand,” Saine said. “I think it’s something obviously worth working on. I don’t even know that it’s on our radar screen.”
Board chairperson Cathy Davis discussed equal accountability standards for all charter, virtual and private schools receiving public funding.
“What this equates to is expense and it’s cumbersome for our staff,” she said. “We’d like to see less of those compliance measures on us and not on the other schools. I have to advocate again for our calendar flexibility so we’re not having to be one of those schools that is taking exception so we can work towards that flexibility for all. We can prove that we’ve seen improved test scores and we had 42 students who were able to graduate early so they could go on to community college if they preferred. There shouldn’t be a ‘them’ and ‘us’ because we’re all here to educate. When charter schools first arrived, they were supposed to be the innovators and we were to learn from them. If we’re learning from them, then let’s let everybody have that same creativity and flexibility.”
Both legislators agreed with Davis’ statements, with Saine adding that was what they’ve talked about throughout the meeting was flexibility to better allocate resources and teach students and that he wanted to continue to give LCS that flexibility.
“I think that’s something we can all agree on is that public schools are drowning in mandates and it trickles down to the classroom,” Davis said.
A lot of them are unfunded mandates, Morrow added, making it harder for us to comply with.
The final request of continuing to support career and technical education funding was addressed by Morrow, who explained the importance of CTE training in Lincoln County. The successes of some of these students were given by Clary.
Alexander closed the meeting by suggesting that he’d like to have some area legislators come to Lincoln County to speak to LCS board members and administrators and members from Lincoln Economic Development Association to discuss priorities and needs.
“There are two things that I’d like to have come out of that,” he said. “One is that in the course of the talk, that you and the economic development folks think of some new stuff that you hadn’t thought of or refine things you’ve thought of. The second thing is that new ideas could be captured that legislators could do to help you.”