Q&A: Rowan-Salisbury Schools superintendent talks pay, federal money and district goals

Published 1:00 am Sunday, December 12, 2021

SALISBURY — Public schools across the country have come into an unprecedented amount of federal funding in the form of COVID-19 relief money.

For Rowan-Salisbury Schools, this translates to about $70 million in federal relief money and another $26.3 million in federal dollars from a grant it was awarded a year ago. It comes with tight spending deadlines and evolving restrictions.

In November, the RSS Board of Education approved $2,000 bonuses for every employee to be paid out of federal relief money and other districts took similar steps in an effort to retain staff, but months earlier the state and the district said those funds could not be used to simply pay staff. Shortly after the board approved the bonuses, Gov. Roy Cooper signed the first comprehensive budget the state has had since he took office in 2017. The new budget includes pay raises and bonuses for school staff, but it falls short on funding a court order to fund a plan so North Carolina public education is able to comply with its constitution.

Last week, the Post sat down with RSS Superintendent Tony Watlington for a wide-ranging discussion on district goals and funding.

Q: Do you think the programs funded by the federal grant money are productive?

Watlington: Overall, yes. Once we get our strategic plan goals, we’ll be better able to identify exactly what we want to incentivize with performance-based compensation.

Q: Do you want to change incentives in the grant?

Watlington: I think we’re doing really good work with the TSL grant. The only thing I would like to tweak a little bit, is I want us to have district goals when we do performance-based compensation.

Q: Do you want to change any existing incentives such as stipends for lab school teachers?

Watlington: We want to keep all those incentives, but we want to tweak some incentives to incentivize performance. A great school district is driven by specific, measurable goals. Right now, we don’t quite have final specific measurable goals in our strategic plan, but once we get that we’ll have all the pieces of the TSL grant and (relief funding) to really drive recruitment and retention of staff, and teaching and learning programs that will help us move those posts.

Q: Is it intimidating to have this amount of federal money injected into the district?

Watlington: I think what has been a little bit intimidating for some school districts is the money came so quickly and the rules changed so quickly, and there’s a short amount of time that we can actually spend the dollars, three years. However, if you ever ask me “should we turn down additional resources that can help improve teaching and learning” the answer is no. So, I’m glad we’ve got the resources. I think we’ve done a good job figuring out how to take those federal dollars and invest in teaching and learning, improve some technology and air quality in buildings. Learning loss has been extreme. It’s real for a lot of our children, and we need every resource and we have to be really intentional about how to make up for that.

Q: Initially it did not seem the state would sign off on districts using relief money to pay staff bonuses. What changed that districts have been allowed to do that?

Watlington: I think the state looked at the fact that in North Carolina we started the school year with 2,600 teacher vacancies and a boatload of classified vacancies. So. they determined maybe it makes sense. You can’t just use it for like an incentive bonus, but you now can use some of these dollars for retention.

Q: Does it concern you that this bonus was paid out of federal money that will not be here forever?

Watlington: I think it’s entirely appropriate given that we’re in this really unique place to do everything we can to recruit and retain teachers, bus drivers, classified staff across the board, because we started the year with so many vacancies after the pandemic. Am I concerned that those monies will go away over time? Yes, but we’re not putting it into people’s salaries. These are short-term interventions and it’s the right thing to do.

Q: Is there any impending need for more bonuses or more changes to the relief funding planning budget?

Watlington: The primary change at this point has been to provide bonuses, and I think the board did the absolute right thing to do that.

Q: Did that bonus keep some people around?

Watlington: I think every little bit helps. Every time the board does something that just says again to our staff “we value you, and even though we don’t have the highest median income levels in Rowan County, we value you, we support you, we appreciate you and we want to retain you as an employee.”

Q: How do you get across to people you care?

Watlington: I think we just keep making the case that, one, we don’t make good the enemy of perfect. Two, when the board provided a bonus back in June, the board was showing that it cares. When the board approved wellness workdays this fall to give all of our RSS staff members a four-day weekend, that we’re saying we care. When the board approved these (COVID-19 relief) bonuses to be paid in December at the tune of $2,000 for full time and part time employees, the board was saying we care. And I also think when the board took its limited resources and said “hey, we’re going to increase salaries first for bus drivers and school nutrition workers and we’re going to do our very best to find additional resources or request additional resources so we can do it with all other classified staff.” I think all of those things when you look at them together show that we are trying really hard as a school board and administration to support our employees. Is it enough? No, but that doesn’t mean we stop.

Q: Is the new money in the state budget enough?

Watlington: The way I answer that question is two-fold: First, in this school district we need to do a very good job of identifying where we can tighten our belt to create more funding for salaries and for classrooms, classified and certified salaries. Two, the state will need to continue to figure out how we are competitive with other states in how we pay our employees.

Q: Would it be preferable to reserve as much relief money as possible for things like upgrades for HVAC?

Watlington: I think if we don’t have teachers to teach in classrooms, bus drivers to drive kids to school, cafeteria staff to feed them, if we don’t have those people in our schools and on our school buses and in our cafeterias, it’d be very, very difficult to operate school. So I think the funders recognize that we need to do something right now that can’t wait three, four, five years. We need to do something right now with all the learning loss kids have experienced and with the loss of staff. We’ve got to do something right now to retain more of our employees. Would I prefer that we have this money over a longer period of time and to sustain some of the work? Absolutely, but I think we’re doing the best we can. I think we’re making the most strategic use of the money given the timeline we’ve been dealt by our federal and state government.

Q: Is the timeline to spend the money tight?

Watlington: This is absolutely a tight timeline. It would have been more ideal to have more time to really develop programmatic areas and more time to sustain them over a number of years so that we could maximize how the dollars work. But when you’ve got a three-year timeframe you’ve got to get moving on it really quickly and what we’ve learned is we have to make adjustments as we go along.

Q: Is the district spending funding at a rate there will be no reversions (money returned) to the state?

Watlington: We do not expect reversions in Rowan-Salisbury Schools. We’ve got a really strong team that works very hard and strategically. So, we don’t expect any reversions of these dollars, and the kids’ needs are sever right now. So, we’re going to get them right now support whether that’s with curriculum and instruction, school cleaning or things like air quality improvements or providing some retention bonuses to school-based employees, these are all things we need to do right now.

Q: Have there been any discussions about trying to use relief funding to bring more staff in?

Watlington: There have been some conversations. We’re at a point in the year that the pool of candidates is not robust. There’s just not a lot of candidates out there and a lot of jobs. And number two, Rowan-Salisbury’s salaries, classified and certified salaries, are below some of our neighboring districts. So, the first thing we need to do is do everything we can to hold onto really good people who are here. The second thing we want to try to do is recruit more people from the outside.

Q: When you started earlier this year, you spoke to the Board of Education about classified staff pay in RSS being suppressed next to comparable districts. How do you compete with wealthier neighboring districts?

Watlington: One, we do what we can to raise our salaries based on the funding that we have available. Two, we have to continue to think about, in Rowan County, how might we use our resources differently to create more funding opportunities for salaries. Then three, we want to have a culture where people really value and like working here and like working in their school or district office where they work. It’s just something we’ll always have to pay attention to: how do we try to pay folks as best we can and how do we make people feel a part of a really special team.

Q: At the top of the organization looking down, how do you try to ensure working here is a good experience?

Watlington: I focus on trying to create a work environment where everyone can do their best work. That means we try to be very collaborative, very team oriented. We did a retreat with a good number of our central office staff and all of our principals and we did a book study of “The Culture Code.” We wanted to spend some time together at our retreat thinking about ‘what do high performing organizations do?’ ‘How do they work as a team?’ ‘How to they band together when there’s a problem to work through?’ I think that we have a lot of challenges in Rowan County, but I also think we have a lot of assets. We’ve got a community that cares about public education, we have philanthropists in this community who support public schools. We’ve got an awful lot of people who have been working here for 25, 30 years and when they say they want us to improve their pay we need to do it, because they have been here, they’ve worked hard, they’ve stuck with us.

Q: How do you replace someone like outgoing Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon and what are you looking for?

Watlington: We’ve got some very big shoes to fill in Carol Herndon’s role. She’s been a phenomenal associate superintendent and chief financial officer. So we’ve already begun the process to find the next Carol Herndon. I’m looking for the very best qualified chief financial officer across the state of North Carolina or somewhere in the Southeast United States.

Q: How do you attract that person here?

Watlington: I think the same reason that I came here: Rowan-Salisbury Schools, we have lots of assets. Number one, we’re the state’s only renewal school district. Some folks want to be part of that cutting edge, new way of thinking about how do we make all kids successful.  Secondly, our geography hurts us in that we have higher paying counties surrounding us and higher median incomes around us in other counties, but it also helps us because we’re in close proximity to the Charlotte region, but you can live out here in Rowan County and have nice access to land, fresh air and not as much traffic. You can also get to metropolitan areas like Winston-Salem and Greensboro fairly quickly. Third I think that we have a good story to tell and we’ve got good support from our business and philanthropic community. I think those three things are all assets that help attract people to Rowan-Salisbury.

Watlington: I think given the state constitution guarantees all North Carolinians a right to a sound basic education, and with the state having an $8 billion surplus, I feel very comfortable as a fiscal conservative saying that I support the Leandro work as a school superintendent and I think we ought to fund it accordingly. But, when we get those dollars those of us in school districts have an ethical and economic responsibility to be very good stewards of the public tax dollars. I don’t believe in just giving us money to waste or to spend on stuff that doesn’t work and just be a blank, open checkbook. I think we should have a high level of accountability for improving student outcomes with those dollars.

Q: The district has been moving toward an accountability model separate to the state’s model of standardized test scores. How difficult is that in practice?

Watlington: We’ve spent about nine months getting input from a 45-member steering committee and done over 35 focus groups. We’ve figured out how to do it. We’re down to 13 draft goals for the school district that we’re going to share again with the Board of Education on Monday night. Three of the goals relate to the state’s accountability model, test score-driven kind of goals, the others relate to other things we think are important. It’s not just about list all your reading and math and science scores and that’s your accountability model. We have some goals related to interpersonal skills and unique life goals to align with the renewal directional system.

Q: Can all those goals all be measured?

Watlington: All of them can be measured. We want the board to agree that these are the 13 overall goal measures, and then I’d like to spend a little more time having principals be a part of a process to say ‘what are the annual goals each year over the next five years.’ One of our goals is to decrease the gaps in performance between white students and students of color in literacy, and improve everybody’s performance. We don’t want white kids to get worse and kids of color to get better and we close the gap that way, we want everybody to improve, but we want to narrow the gap of performance.

Q: Do you want a combined approach to accountability with the state and district models?

Watlington: We are going to have a combined approach because we do not have a waiver from state test scores. We are going to do both, but we’re not going to focus just on test scores, we’re also going to focus on developing the whole child. When developing a focus on the whole child, over time, the thinking is we’ll do well.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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