Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles about concerns of Elkin City Schools officials and discussion held between the school system and local, state and national elected officials during a dinner held Jan. 7 in Elkin.
In addition to school calendars and consolidation, Elkin school officials shared other concerns they have about topics like the state school report cards and testing, state funding distribution between charter and traditional schools, and teacher retention and salaries, while state officials breached the conversation on driver’s education funding as well.
These discussions took place Thursday during a Legislative Dinner held at Elkin High School in the media center, which included board of education members, administrators and department heads from Elkin City Schools hosting Rep. Sarah Stevens, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, Sen. Shirley Randleman, Rep. Kyle Hall, who is communications director for Congressman Mark Walker, Sen. Richard Burr’s field representative Mike Fenley, and Surry County Commissioners Eddie Harris, Larry Phillips and Buck Golding.
Testing, state report cards concerns
“The school performance grades need to look more at student growth than student performance,” said Superintendent Dr. Randy Bledsoe as he addressed items with the elected officials, adding that it is an unfair look at schools since all areas are not tested across the board.
“Based on the scale, no matter how well schools do 20 percent of the schools will always be failing,” he said. “Why would a business want to move to Charlotte if 20 percent of the schools are failing? We need to look at another way to grade schools.”
Elmore, who is an educator in addition to his role as representative, explained he has a bill sitting in committee which would eliminate North Carolina Final Exams such as the end-of-grade tests and ASWs (Analysis of Student Work). “There is too much inconsistency and they are too cumbersome,” he said. “I think we can streamline testing and get data which can compare North Carolina to others in the country and really know where our students are.”
One of the concerns for Principal Pam Colbert at Elkin Elementary School is the large amount of time taken for one-on-one assessments with students in kindergarten through third grade. “The teachers spend 38 or 39 days of the year assessing kindergarten through third-graders,” she said. “That’s a lot of time they are not getting instruction and with taking away TAs [teacher assistants] it is almost impossible to manage a class while assessing one student in the back of a room.”
Elmore explained those assessments, called mCLASS, are a diagnostic tool, but there is a testing group at the state level looking at redevelopment of the testing and possibly doing away with EOGs completely. The new system would be digitally based, portal accessible, short and show the growth of a child without shutting a school down for three hour tests, he said of the option being considered.
“To make an elephant larger, you feed him, you don’t constantly measure him,” he said in comparison to students being taught rather than constantly tested.
And while the new A-F grading system for school performance grades gives the public a clue as to how schools are doing, Elmore said it can be misleading. “Take Roaring River Elementary School. It is a D, but it is a central hub for EC [exceptional children] students in classrooms in Wilkes County. They will never make a high grade, but its growth is the highest in the county,” he said.
Charter school funding discussed
The way in which funds are distributed to charter schools also was an item of concern from Bledsoe, who said some schools are able to get child nutrition funding when they don’t even offer a lunch program. Student allocations from the state follow a student, so if a student in the Elkin City Schools district opted to attend Bridges Academy instead, then the funding follows that student to Bridges. Capital expenditure funds do not follow the student.
“It needs to be looked at fair and equally, but at the same time, if the school started up and knew those rules, then don’t try to start taking all you can,” he said of charter school advocates’ attempts to pull more and more funding from traditional schools.
But Stevens said, “Charter schools are public schools. The extent money is allocated for students should go with the students.
Elmore said the most recent bill on charter school funding came to his committee, whose job is to take them from 24 forms and create one which will work. He said the bill comes down to if the school is offering the programs, then they can get the funding; if not, then they don’t. “We are trying to work on that,” he said.
Bledsoe just requested that the rules are “equitable.”
Personnel, human resources items highlighted
Bledsoe’s first concern dealing with employees involved the $750 bonus pay provided to staff by the state, but he said those who are not classified as state employees didn’t get a bonus, so to make sure everyone was treated equally the city school leaders had to pull funding from local dollars, which was an unexpected expenditure.
“I think there may be a pay raise this year but what kind?” asked Bledsoe of the state officials. “When you look at the veteran teachers, they’ve seen very little.”
He showed a graph charting the increase and decrease in state funding through the years, and while funding from the state did increase this year, he said it was 37.8 percent, compared to 37.3 percent the previous year. “We are still down 1.4 percent from a few years ago, and we’ve increased students but reduced funding,” he noted.
In the area of teacher recruitment, Bledsoe said, “I’m really concerned,” adding in the past seven years there’s been a reduction in the number of students entering programs to attained teacher licensure.
“We’re going to hit a major pitfall, and there is going to be teeth gnashing. Charlotte/Mecklenburg started the year 100 to 200 positions short,” he reported. “This year we were looking for a social studies teacher. They used to be a dime a dozen, this year we got four applications.”
Other issues included retirement changes and health care changes for retirees. While existing employees will be likely be grandfathered in to the changes, which changes the retirement system from a defined benefit to a defined contribution, while new hires will be affected. Also, a provision in the Senate’s 2015 budget did away with state health plan coverage for retirees hired on or after Jan. 1, 2016.
“Health and retirement benefits draw people in,” he said in an urge for legislators to keep that in mind when making changes, especially the teacher recruitment concerns he highlighted.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.