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Grayson leaders discuss school projects, budget

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By Patrick Smith

INDEPENDENCE — Superintendent Kevin Chalfant’s new ideas and goals for the next school year in Grayson County include completing a $60,000 renovation project to improve athletic facilities at the high school and increasing staff salaries by 3 percent.
Chalfant shared his ideas March 18 at a combined meeting of the Grayson Board of Supervisors and Grayson School Board to discuss the county’s 2013-14 education budget.
Assuming enrollment at Grayson County schools remains at approximately 1,783 students, Chalfant expects that after state, federal, local and “other” financial assistance, expected revenues for the year would total $20.5 million.
Chalfant stressed that increased teacher salaries remain the top priority for the next year, but he also listed improvements in technology, facilities, transportation, school safety/security and other programs as priorities.
In terms of salaries, Chalfant said he plans to reward and show appreciation to staff “for hanging in there” by unfreezing four years of salary steps and making Grayson County schools competitive with other systems in Southwest Virginia. He said he also plans to take advantage of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent teacher salary increase of 2 percent, as well as an adding 1 percent for the required Virginia Retirement System mandate, totaling a 3 percent raise for teachers and support staff.
However, Chalfant said it was important to note that the governor’s raise includes teachers and principals but only some support staff, such as guidance counselors and librarians. It leaves out bus drivers and cafeteria workers, for example.
Next, Chalfant showed a comparison between Grayson County schools’ staff salaries and those of other local systems like Carroll, Smyth and Wythe counties and the City of Galax. He said the proposed 3 percent increase would raise the average Grayson teacher salary from $40,315 to $41,515, principals from $60,898 to $65,898 and assistant principals from $45,714 to $50,714.
Chalfant explained the proposed $5,000 principal salary increase is due to salaries being cut in 2008 and remaining frozen since that time. The $5,000 annual raise would return the principal salary to where it was prior to the cuts, which he noted may not seem like a raise to the principals.
“Principal is the toughest job in a school system, especially at the higher levels,” said Chalfant. “There is nothing better than a well-run school because of a highly qualified principal in charge.”
Principals also are difficult to retain, Chalfant said.
Grayson schools have seen the biggest loss of teachers recently at the high school level. Many of them taught advanced math courses.
Some good news, Chalfant said, was that even though school staff salaries will remain low even after the 3 percent raise in terms of the state average, the school system will see the best insurance rates in the area. Grayson will enjoy a “zero percent” increase next year, while other local school systems’ insurance costs will rise drastically.
After laying out his goals for salary increases, Chalfant presented his plans for other key areas in need of improvement.

Technology
Chalfant said he plans to take a multi-year approach to improving school technology.
In the coming year, he said he plans to enhance schools’ infrastructure and install wireless networks.
He said the division would commit $258,000 toward technology in the 2013-2014 school year, and he requested up to $100,000 from the Grayson Board of Supervisors to help make the needed improvements. He explained the money would be used primarily for hardware, computer lab maintenance and servers.
Chalfant pointed out that, while the schools received iPads to use in classrooms through a recent grant, the buildings have no wireless Internet, so they remain on the shelves. He said he envisioned a system in which students in grades one, six and nine could be loaned an iPad to use throughout their elementary, middle and high school years.

Transportation
According to Chalfant, 16 buses have 200,000-plus miles on them and are in need of replacement. To address the issue, Chalfant said his plans include the purchase of one bus per year, with each costing $82,000. He said the division would have to purchase three a year just to replace the ones “ready for the graveyard.”

Facilities
A partial list of projects to improve facilities in the coming year under Chalfant’s plan included a boiler ($30,000), a retaining wall to help prevent flooding at Fries School ($10,000), renovations to the high school gym and auditorium entrances and restrooms, parking lot pavement and classroom remodels.
Chalfant said the division will commit $200,000 to facility upgrades this summer, but educators are requesting up to $80,000 from the supervisors.
Additionally, Chalfant said his plans include upgrades to the high school athletic facilities totaling $60,000, which will fix “serious sinkholes and safety issues” with the football field and construct a new practice facility. Funding for the project would be split between the county and the school board.

Safety & Security
To address school safety, Chalfant said he plans to improve the sturdiness of doors and locks, install entry buzzer systems and cameras and distribute two-way radios. He requested up to $60,000 from the Board of Supervisors and said the division will also apply for grants to meet these needs.
“You can’t prevent every kind of scenario, but we can make it difficult for anyone attacking a school by being prepared,” he said.
Chalfant said an additional goal is to convince the supervisors to look at his list and decide which areas would have the biggest impact in helping the schools, as well as the community. He also said he wanted supervisors to consider how they could support the division in giving children the best education possible.

Prison Impact
Members of both boards discussed the potential impact that the opening of the River North Correctional Facility in October could have on schools. Chalfant said he had seen prison openings in small towns before, and it unfortunately did not do much to help school enrollment.
“The prison will provide jobs, but the people working there will likely live in Galax and Wythe County,” he speculated.
County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said he had lunch with the prison’s warden, who he said has three children. Sweet pointed out that the prison would only include 83 personnel transfers from other correctional facilities, leaving almost 300 positions to be filled.
“We’re going to have an influx of folks bringing their families,” Sweet said.

The supervisors have set a special called meeting to discuss the school projects on April 3 at 6:30 p.m.
The board of supervisors will hold its next regularly scheduled meeting April 11. The school board will hold its next regularly scheduled meeting April 8.