By Bridget Manley, publisher
To help retain and attract teachers and staff to Harrisonburg schools, the school board is proposing “significant” salary increases across the system for the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
The operating budget proposal, which Superintendent Michael Richards presented to the board Tuesday evening, calls for at least a 5% salary increase across the board, as dictated by the State of Virginia.
On top of that, most teachers and staff would see an, on average, a 9% increase in salary, Richards said.
“We really need to focus on salary increases, especially for teachers,” Richards said. “And we also need to focus on salary increases for our staff.”
The lowest earners in the school system make $11 an hour. Those wages will automatically be raised to $13.50 an hour under the proposal. Staff salaries will be raised between 5-12%, with a “science-based focus” on where the needs are.
If the operating budget is approved, the school system will move from the silver level into the gold level of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Living Wage certification.
Resources in the proposed operational budget include additional staff to meet student needs and address learning loss, professional development, and continued investment in community outreach, special education and family engagement.
Richards also presented a budget that includes resources to address the overcrowding at Harrisonburg High School until the new high school is opened.
The school district spends almost 75% of its annual budget on instruction, which Richards says is important.
“We are a division that devotes our resources to instruction,” Richards said.
Richards said he was proud that, for the first time in the district’s history, all of the proposed budget items directly relate to initiatives and objectives in the board’s strategic plan, which grew out of community input and the document aimed at guiding the division through 2026.
The average budget increase from one year to the next is 4%, Richards said. But in the years where a new school opens, the operating budget can soar higher in large part because the district must hire new staff for that building.
The new high school, which is being built on land between South Main Street and I-81, is forecast to open in fall 2024, and Richards said it’s unclear how large of a funding bump it will require.
“We have been front-loading a lot of staff for the new high school because we needed the staff for overcrowding,” Richards said. “You have to have teachers to teach those students.”
The operating budget proposal also has more money for substitute teachers, in part in response to shortages since the pandemic began — like many school districts have experienced. The proposed budget increase will add an additional 12%, which works out to be $72,591 for substitute teacher costs.
The district also plans to spend $90,000 to move the welcome center, which registers all children into city schools, from Keister Elementary School to a still-to-be-determined leased location.
Specific details about salary increases will be further discussed at the board’s next work session March 8.
Masking fully optional effective Thursday
The board also voted unanimously to make masking optional “across the board” effective on Thursday.
Richards said that new CDC guidance, issued last week, offers more specifics about when localities should — or don’t have to — require masks based on hospitalizations.
Harrisonburg’s cases and hospitalization numbers dropped the city into the “medium risk” category on Tuesday – the same day that optional masking for students went into effect in the state of Virginia.
“It was a coincidence, but a nice one,” Richards said.
While masking for students was optional in schools, it was still required on buses. In addition, staff have been required to wear masks indoors at all times.
On Thursday, all students and staff can choose if they want to wear a mask.
“The mandate is now a metric,” Richards said.
Board Vice Chair Deb Fitzgerald asked for kindness and sensitivity during the transition, noting that many people still have family members who are immunocompromised or have young children at home who have not yet been vaccinated. She asked those in schools to consider keeping masks nearby and to wear them if they have symptoms.
“Let’s be sensitive and let’s be kind as we transfer out of the pandemic mindset into one that’s a little less scary,” Fitzgerald said.
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