Hanlin presents school budget priorities

The Wicomico County Board of Education appears ready to support Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin’s $7.99 million Fiscal 2020 funding request for projects specific to her “Achieve! 3.0” strategic plan.

The board met Tuesday for a fourth time to do more work on the budget plan, which is expected to be passed this coming Tuesday and forwarded to County Executive Bob Culver by the March 15 deadline.

Education spending will be part of a public hearing on the county’s entire budget, scheduled for Wednesday, March 20, at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center.

Hanlin’s four budget priorities were greeted without the slightest negative public reaction by the newly elected board members. The proposals were presented and supported in a meeting that lasted just 30 minutes.
Top among the superintendent’s goals is the Universal Pre-Kindergarten program, intended to make youngsters entering the school system better prepared for the rigors of structured education.

In the 2020 budget, only three part-time positions would need to be added. The program’s expansion would increase schools spending by $235,030.
To improve school safety and overall student performance, Hanlin has keyed on Social, Emotional, Behavioral Support and English Language Learners Support, which would add $1.32 million to the budget.

This initiative requires 19 areas of spending, ranging from additional specialized teachers and guidance counselors to a campus patrol assistant, social workers and in-school psychologists.

Priciest on the list is Hanlin’s commitment to recruit and retain a high-performing workforce. At $6.03 million, this priority is entirely committed to the increase in the cost of health insurance for all general fund employees who have health insurance, and increases in the cost to fund negotiated agreements for approximately 2,100 full-time employees.

Other increases, which are not part of the strategic plan but are regarded as mandatory and routine costs of business, total $2.59 million.

Many of these 12 line items reflect state mandates, insurance contributions and other long-term post-employment benefits plan requirements. There would also be cost-of-living increases to hourly staff members, totaling $63,431.

The superintendent and her budget staff found about $2.19 million in budget cuts to help achieve the funding goals, most of which are related to savings in employee turnover and potential savings in a less-aggressive schools construction list.

To place the spending in perspective, Hanlin released spending figures that could be tied to a per pupil basis:

•Spending for Universal Pre-K would cost $16 per pupil in the program.

•Social, Emotional, Behavioral Support and English Language Learners Support would amount to $92 per pupil.

•It would cost $420 per pupil to meet Hanlin’s goals in recruiting and retaining a high-performing workforce.

Achieve! 3.0 details

Under Achieve! 3.0, Hanlin offers three “strategic priorities,” directly related to the already stated goals, toward which the system must strive.

Priority 1: This is aimed at increasing on-grade level reading by third grade, through a specific goal to increase kindergarten readiness.
Children who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade are likely to feel alienated from school, and are four to six times more likely to drop out of high school, and the consequences often stretch well into adulthood.

“We know that the formative first years of life are unquestionably important,” the superintendent said. “What happens to children during those very important beginning years of life greatly impacts brain development. During those critical years, if children don’t receive the stimulation and care they need for healthy development, many of those children never catch up.”

Priority 2: Ensure that students graduate college or are career-ready.

Hanlin has said the number of children with significant social, emotional and behavior needs entering schools across the country is on the rise, and Wicomico County schools are no exception.

Not only is the number of students who need support growing, but the severity of their needs is increasing and manifesting at a much younger age.

Research shows that children with mental health needs that go unaddressed are much less likely to achieve academically and are at greater risk of involvement in the criminal justice system.

Therefore, the school system will increase its support for the social, emotional and behavior needs of students through programming and staff, including additional social workers, guidance and school psychologists.

“I am confident that investment will greatly impact our graduation rate,” she said. “But we recognize that there is so much more that needs to happen to impact our second priority of graduation rate — everything that happens between pre-kindergarten and graduation.”

She said she will continue to provide students with increased opportunities for engagement in relevant curricular pathways that prepare students for future careers, as demonstrated by the successful NexGen Program at Salisbury Middle School. The plan is to add another 50 students from across the county to that program, expanding that program to 100 students.
Priority 3: A high-performing workforce.

Hanlin has been especially emphatic on this strategic priority, calling it “the priority that supports and is the underpinning of all that we do in our school system.”

Retention efforts have shown progress, as have recruitment initiatives, but teachers face challenges from the student population that affects the quality of their job.

“We hear from our teachers that when students enter our schools with significant mental health needs, their ability to teach is compromised,” Hanlin said.

“By increasing our efforts to address the social, emotional and behavior needs of our students,” she said, “we will be creating an environment where teachers are better able to do what they are hired to do — teach.”

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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