Iredell-Statesville Schools Teacher of the Year Bethany Orr addresses lawmakers.
BY KARISSA MILLER
Iredell-Statesville Schools leaders and elected officials met Friday morning in Troutman to discuss the school board’s legislative priorities for public education.
Superintendent Brady Johnson presented the school district’s 2020 legislative priorities to the delegation of Iredell County lawmakers and elected officials at Friday’s meeting.
The priorities are:• Enhancing school safety and the mental wellness of students;• Addressing staffing challenges; and• Amending the A-F school performance grades in North Carolina.
The school board approves legislative priorities each year and then seeks support for policy change, legislation or funding.
Overview of the Roundtable
Boen Nutting, director of communication and development, served as the moderator.
Nutting recognized the group and said, “I believe that everyone at the table is here because they want to do what’s right for kids.”
She explained that I-SS reformatted the legislative breakfast from a large crowd to a small group of invitation-only individuals to have a more candid discussion.
“If you got a seat to this table then you have something to add to this conversation,” Nutting said.
I-SS came up with a series of questions to help guide the conversation; however, the roundtable was not limited to just those questions.
Enhancing School Safety Measures
With increasing incidents of mental health issues and school violence occurring around the nation, I-SS administrators and school board officials say they are committed to making sure the district provides a safe learning environment for students and conducive setting for visitors.
The school system presented data that showed 1 in 5 children have mental health or substance use disorder, with 75 percent of those going untreated and thereby enhancing the potential escalation into violence at school or elsewhere.
Johnson told lawmakers that the school system was devastated last year when the ¼-cent sales tax referendum for education was put before voters and failed. The tax would have generated funds to support the district’s public safety initiatives, including adding more school resource officers, counselors and other positions at the schools.
The county commissioners helped the schools by creating a special public safety line item in its budget to help cover some of the essential safety needs of the schools.
However, as the school year got underway, I-SS officials received word that the district had received $12.5 million in federal grants to fund some of the remaining school safety items.
“These grants will help us for the next five years,” the superintendent said. “Then the question becomes sustainability.”
Johnson said I-SS was the only school system in the nation to receive all three grants. He mentioned that the staffing ratios of school safety personnel are behind the state and national averages, but the grants will help the district address its first legislative priority.
Staffing Challenges in N.C. Public Schools
The school district struggles to maintain the employees required to operate all of its buses, teach its students, serve lunches and other vital positions.
School officials find it’s due to rigorous licensure standards, a low base pay for beginning teachers and a combination of factors that prohibit many individuals from entering into education as a profession. Principals often find that candidate pools are shallow or sometimes completely dry of qualified candidates.
The district is seeking legislation to grow the teacher pipeline through career pathways for military veterans, teacher assistants and high school students. They are also asking for additional incentives to recruit non-certified employees.
Amend the A-F Report Card
Melanie Taylor, deputy superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, explained that the stakes of the N.C. Report Card are high and can affect not only public and parent perception, but can be far reaching in the economy of the local community and state as a whole.
Businesses who are looking at locating in North Carolina also look at the quality of life for their employees and the local schools. The performance grade that schools receive each year can play a big part in that assessment of the community.
The change from an 80 proficiency/20 growth split to a 50/50 split would positively impact 12 I-SS schools, Taylor said.
“When you look at this list, many of our schools that have high poverty, those students come in behind,” Taylor explained. “Although those students are making a lot of growth and moving forward, they aren’t getting as much credit for that because they aren’t meeting the proficiency mark.”
Taylor said I-SS is asking for a 50/50 grading score. She asked state Rep. John Fraley and Sen. Vickie Sawyer what are the biggest barriers to making some of those changes.
“Primarily the issue as we know is in the Senate … there’s a new group of senators coming in who have all been very vocal in this general area in the state on the need to change that,” Fraley said.
Though she did not delve into specifics during the meeting, Sawyer said she would work hard on legislation to get it corrected.
Iredell Commissioner Chairman James Mallory chimed in, stating, “This is a critical concern. When recruiting businesses, they look at these scores and decide whether to locate in Iredell county at all.”
He explained that a parent’s focus is growth when students are younger.
“They expect them to know more when they leave first grade than when they came in,” Mallory said. “At the end of the table, in high school they are expected to achieve more than grow. There’s an inverse relationship as kids go through the system.”
He suggested that Iredell County come up with its own 50/50 report card, suggesting community leaders show people the county score card and then explain wthe difference.
“I like that,” Fraley said. “We ought to talk about that some more. That may be an answer on how do you bridge a divide on the subject.”
Board member Todd Carver asked lawmakers: How can the state government best support I-SS school system?
“Communication and not attacking us is a good way to work with us in the legislature,” Sawyer responded.
She found herself under attack by a few educators, referencing the Red for Ed rally.
Sawyer explained that she has always been supportive of education, has two daughters in the school system and been a spokesperson for Our Schools First.
Fraley said that he seconded what Sawyer said as it relates to communication.
He explained that when the teacher group came to Raleigh, he asked the financial people in the legislative staff to give him a cost of what their requests are.
“It came back $5 billion. The entire state budget is $24 billion,” Fraley said. “We have to have realistic expectations of what’s obtainable and a step process to do that.”
Kenny Miller, assistant superintendent of facilities and planning, said there’s a huge shortage in trades people interested in classified positions. I-SS has a hard time filling positions like HVAC technicians.
Miller said that classified employees sometimes get overlooked when it comes to raises.
“If you drive a bus for the prison, you get a raise. If you drive a bus for Mooresville Graded or I-SS you don’t,” he said.
Miller asked is there any plans to try and address some of that discrepancy because morale is really low.
Fraley said that it’s addressed this year, in the supplemental bill 354, which takes raises up to about 2.2 percent for state employees.
“It’s something people are aware of and without any question that group of employees has gotten the short end of the stick,” Fraley said.
Sawyer said that changes in the Senate are on the horizon. There are seven votes that might not be returning, she said, and a new day is coming with the 2020 election.