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School board green lights restorative classrooms

By Rebecca Rider
rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — There were only a handful of hours left on the clock for the 2015-2016 fiscal year when the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education voted Thursday to fund a pilot restorative classroom program.

The budget request, which would provide two self-contained elementary level classrooms for children who deal with chronic, severe behavioral issues, has been the topic of discussion and committee meetings for months.

Several teachers spoke up in support of the program during public comment, saying that they would rather see a restorative program than receive a salary supplement — another budget request the board had been considering.

“As teachers, we’re not here for the money, we’re here for the children — all children,” Mary Novins, a first grade teacher at Hurley Elementary, said.

Novins said that, as a teacher, she had one or two children in her class who regularly acted out, and often found herself spending more time trying to deescalate situations than she did teaching. It was detrimental to the other students in her classroom, who she said told her they felt afraid or intimidated.

Sharon Miller, a former teacher, said that she had been kicked and cursed at by a student, who regularly had to be removed from her classroom. She said there were no consequences for students who regularly acted out.

“At this time, I don’t feel that the students or the staff are safe in these classrooms,” she said.

But board discussion leapt back and forth between funding the restorative classrooms, or providing supplements for teachers. Because of the potential for a state-mandated teacher pay increase and a shortage of local funds, Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody encouraged the board to consider providing bonuses, which could be decided at a later date, instead of a supplement.

The school system received at $1.5 million expansion in local funds from the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, but because the district pays several positions out of local funds, a state-mandated 5 percent increase would only leave the board approximately $457,000 to work with for the pilot program and other budget requests.

Running the pilot program as proposed by the superintendent’s disciplinary committee would require seven new positions. According to Moody, salaries for a program coordinator, an Exceptional Children’s (EC) teacher and two teacher assistants could be funded through the EC budget. But money would need to be pulled from local funds to cover a social worker and two full-time classroom teachers — an estimated cost of $195,000.

When discussion turned towards the restorative classroom, board member Travis Allen said he wanted to give the program a start, and said he’d like to see “at least three elementary classrooms,” but thinks that a middle school component would benefit the program.

“I don’t want it to be halfway done so that it fails. I want to give it an honest chance and a good start,” he said.

Allen clarified that he didn’t want the classrooms to become an “in-school suspension” type of program, but a learning program where students were taught academics and behavior coping strategies.

“I want to ensure that we’re not just throwing students in there because they’re the bad kids. When we put them in there we need to be helping them,” he said.

But board member Jean Kennedy suggested that dealing with behavior problems needed to start in the classroom, with clear expectations from the teacher.

“I know that today’s students are difficult . . . we have to help our students, and we can’t help all of them by labeling them and corralling them in a room,” she said.

In response, Allen said that teachers can reach a point where they’ve “exhausted what there is to exhaust.”

“And I think that’s where we are in a lot of our classroom,” he said.

When a student begins affecting the learning and wellbeing of other students, Allen said, that’s when something needs to be done.

After nearly 45 minutes of discussion, board member Dean Hunter made a motion to approve funding for two restorative classrooms as well as a $38,000 supplement for coaches. Hughes seconded.

But board Chair Josh Wagner cautioned against adding recurring positions to the local fund, and recommended having the cost come out of the board’s fund balance. He also advocated for a recurring 1 percent supplement for staff, since the board had previously stated that supplements were a priority.

Hughes, a former supporter of teacher pay increase, said that a concrete plan for the restorative classroom program had swayed him and said the board had a right to change its mind.

“We have the right to change our priorities,” he said. “And No. 1, pay raises for teachers should never be our priority. Our priority should be the students, and this program is directed towards students.”

The motion passed 6-1, with Wagner voting against.

Other budget requests will be discussed at the board’s July 18 business meeting.

In other news the board:

  • Approved hiring up to eight more teachers from the Visiting International Faculty program, for a possible total of 15.
  • Voted unanimously to use the fund balance to pay for a co-principal at Koontz and a teacher recruiter for the 2016-2017 fiscal year – a total of $137,000.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.

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