Waynesboro Schools

News Virginian file photo

Waynesboro School Board Chair Rick Wheeler (left) and Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Cassell discuss the school system’s 2020-2021 budget at the board’s January regular meeting.

After a difficult 2019-2020 budget, Waynesboro Schools sees clear skies ahead for its 2020-2021 budget.

“I’m really excited about the budget presentation this year,” said Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Cassell, who has been with the school system for seven years, at Waynesboro School Board’s regular meeting Tuesday night at Waynesboro City Hall. He said this is the first year “I’ve had a really positive and exciting message for you.”

In previous years, when the school board got to the end of the budget season, Cassell said that they had to determine how to handle shortfalls in the budget, but that is not expected to be the case this year.

The school board’s budget priorities for 2020-2021 include teacher compensation, in order to retain staff, and recruiting. The school system also hopes to focus on employee benefits.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget for public school education includes funds for Virginia Preschool Initiative, additional school counselors, support for students who are at risk, support for English as a Second Language students, and support for reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs.

Waynesboro Schools initiated free breakfast and lunch programs last year.

“We were pleased that the governor was following our lead on this one,” Cassell said.

The governor’s budget also includes revisions to employer rates for Virginia Retirement System fringe benefits.

Waynesboro Schools has 3,035 students. More than 53 percent of the student population is white, almost 18 percent is Hispanic and almost 16 percent are black.

“We have a very diverse student population,” Cassell said.

More than 62 percent of Waynesboro’s students are economically disadvantaged, according to the free and reduced lunch program.

Cassell said that Waynesboro Schools can anticipate $1,078,250 in new state revenue for 2020-2021.

He added that he has been in meetings recently in which superintendents from nearby school systems “were lamenting the fact that they got no new state money, and, in a couple of cases, actually got less state dollars.”

“That’s because those are quite wealthy school divisions, and they don’t have very diverse populations,” Cassell said. “I would tell you Waynesboro Public Schools is one of the poster children for the governor’s budget.”

Waynesboro Schools anticipates an increase of $88,807 in federal funding, and more than $497,000 from the city of Waynesboro.

“Thank you city council and city administration,” Cassell said.

The school system’s proposed revenue budget totals $1,454,000 in new revenue, and the 2020-2021 budget will include 4 percent raises for teachers, as well as increased compensation rates for substitute teachers and raises for coaches. Cassell said that coaches have not received raises since 2009.

Waynesboro Schools is looking at a surplus of more than $337,000, and Cassell offered suggestions to the school board for allocating the surplus funds.

He recommended expanding pre-K programs and increasing course offerings at Waynesboro High School and Kate Collins Middle School.

Cassell also recommended restoring positions and programs that were cut in recent years. Twenty positions were eliminated through retirements and attrition in 2019, 10 positions were cut in 2015, and, according to Cassell, more than 20 positions were eliminated in 2011.

“So, we have easily cut more than 50 positions over the last decade since the Recession began,” Cassell said.

Sustaining and advancing instructional programs is another recommendation from Cassell so that the school system can maintain state accreditation.

“I’m very proud that we have accredited schools,” Cassell said.

He cautioned that the $337,000 will not cover all of his recommendations, but the proposed 2020-2021 budget is balanced.

“By no means is this the final budget that you’ll see in March to be adopted,” Cassell said.

The General Assembly’s actions in the current session may affect Waynesboro’s budget before it is finalized.

Lori Davis, a 2001 Waynesboro High School graduate and former Waynesboro Schools teacher, spoke publicly for the first time about an incident involving her daughter last March. Davis said her youngest daughter was attacked by another student while in kindergarten at Westwood Hills Elementary School.

According to Davis, her daughter suffered a concussion when she was pushed to the ground and hit her head on the teacher’s desk. Her daughter also suffered abdominal bruising from being kicked.

She asked the school board to prioritize student safety in its 2020-2021 budget by restoring positions that were cut in last year’s budget in order to balance the budget.

“Although it may not seem like the loss of reading specialists would impact student safety, these professionals work in classrooms on a daily basis, and, as we all know, the more adult presence we can have on a daily basis, the better supervision that we will have providing our precious children,” Davis said.

Davis said that, as a teacher, she “can also assure you that more time on academic tasks means less opportunities for unsafe behavior.”

“I am coming to you tonight and I am pleading with you as a citizen of this community, a former graduating student, a former employee, and, most importantly, a mom, please put this budget to work for safety for our kids,” said Davis.

Davis said she asks that the board lower student to teacher ratios in classrooms, provide more positions that address behavioral, mental health and safety in each school, and increase the number of instructional aides in classrooms.

Davis said she intends to gather signatures and create a Waynesboro Schools Safety Committee.

“I am not just here coming to you with suggestions, but I am willing to be a part of the solution if you desire,” Davis said.

She said she wants “to see Waynesboro Public Schools ensure that our students are safe.”

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