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Gloucester residents to have say on possible early school opening

Gloucester residents can have their say on whether local public schools should open before Labor Day this year via a survey that is available on the Gloucester County Public Schools’ website. The brief survey must be completed by 8 p.m. Friday.

The Gloucester School Board agreed to issue the survey during its work session held electronically last Thursday. School division superintendent Walter Clemons said the majority of respondents were not in favor of a pre-Labor Day opening when a similar survey was conducted in December of last year.

However, Clemons said that the online learning and electronic communications between students and teachers now taking place do not replace the time in classrooms lost since the governor ordered statewide school closures March 16 due to COVID-19.

“Nothing can replace the face-to-face time in classrooms with teachers interacting with students,” he said, adding that a change in state law now allows public schools to open as early as two weeks prior to Labor Day. He also noted that Labor Day is not until Sept. 7 this year.

Clemons did not suggest a start date but said getting an earlier start “may help us make up some of the instructional things that kids have lost in the time they’ve been out.” He also said there may be merit in having an earlier start to help students get back on track going into the 2020-2021 school year. The board agreed by consensus to issue the new survey.

In other business, the board again discussed and delayed action on a recommendation by Clemons to provide emergency pay of an extra $10 per hour to non-exempt employees working since schools closed.
This would provide a hazard-type pay for some cafeteria workers who have handed out meals to students and some transportation employees who have delivered computers to students needing them at home.

Clemons said the extra duties were assigned to employees who were interested in taking them on. He said the extra pay would go to 49 food service workers and six transportation employees at a cost of just under $58,000.

Clemons said the cost could be covered by funds the school division would receive under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which he estimated would be about $600,000.

“I don’t believe this is the right decision at this moment,” said board member Darren Post. Post moved to table the matter but the motion was not seconded.

“I see no problem in utilizing that (CARES Act funding), that’s what it’s there for,” said board member Brenda Mack. Clemons said, as he understood it, the funds could only be used for non-recurring expenses. “I think we need to be very strategic about any funding we would get,” he added.

Board member Randy Burak said the matter should be tabled until the board learns exactly how much CARES Act funding the division would receive and what it can be used for. The board voted to table the matter until its May 12 meeting.

A release from the Virginia Department of Education the following day showed Gloucester Public Schools would receive $633,644 via the CARES Act.

In a discussion of budget matters, Clemons estimated the division would close out fiscal year 2020 with about $422,275 remaining in its operating budget. He said this would be after regular expenses and an anticipated shortfall of almost $1.3 million due to a loss in sales tax revenue and declining student enrollment.

Division finance director Heather Lucas said the division has put a hiring freeze in place, let all temporary workers go, and has put a spending freeze in place. “Everyone has to go through me to purchase anything,” she added. She also said she expects a significant savings in utilities costs through the remainder of FY2020.

Clemons said county administrator Brent Fedors has suggested the division give back about $300,000 of its remaining FY2020 funds to the county to help it cover its own shortfalls. Clemons recommended delaying any such action until the board finds out how much county supervisors will allocate to the school division for FY2021.

Post said if the supervisors want to make a request of the school board, they should formally do it and say what they will do with the funding.

Burak and Mack agreed that supervisors should explain what they would use the funding for, just as they always ask the school board to do. “Don’t they also have a contingency fund,” Burak asked. The board took no action on Fedors’ suggestion.

Regarding the division’s FY2021 budget, Clemons said the level funding recommended by Fedors could leave the board with a unique budget.

“One unlike one we’ve ever seen,” he said, making the FY21 budget worse to navigate than its modern recession-era budgets. The board initially sought a $7 million increase in local funding for the fiscal year.

Clemons said the school division stands to lose about $2 million in sales tax and supplemental lottery funding in FY21.

In addition, it faces a $1.75 million increase in health insurance costs, over $300,000 in Virginia Retirement System rate increases and a significant increase in regional school tuition costs.