2015-01-21 / Front Page

‘We get it’

New School Board chair promises teachers will be heard
By Jim McConnell

Coyner Coyner Carrie Coyner’s first public remarks as leader of the School Board were music to the ears of Chesterfield’s public school teachers.

“This will not be a year with new initiatives, but a year of focus and fine-tuning,” Coyner said at last week’s School Board meeting, during which she was elected to replace Dianne Smith as the board’s new chairwoman.

In response to plummeting teacher morale and mounting frustration – the phrase “Just let me teach!” has become the Chesterfield Education Association’s rallying cry – Coyner acknowledged that the school system’s massive technological changes over the past few years have made life difficult for many educators.

“We want to let folks know that we get it – we understand that a lot of things have been switched out all at once,” she said. “Change is always hard. I definitely think that all of the technology changes have added a layer of stress.”

Elected to the School Board in 2011, Coyner has become the board’s most vocal advocate for revitalizing the county’s oldest schools and addressing poverty in eastern Chesterfield.

As the lone board member with children in the local school system, Coyner also volunteers at her kids’ school and has a reputation for listening to the concerns of parents, teachers, administrators and staff.

David Wyman, the Dale District’s School Board representative, called her “the most active board member in supporting the needs of the schools in her district and across the county.”

Don Wilms, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, said during last week’s meeting that it will be welcome news to the county’s teachers if the Coyner-led School Board truly is ready to address their needs.

He quoted Chris Braunlich, president of the state Board of Education, as stating that “even when there are no new dollar costs to a mandate, there is a cost in people and time – time spent doing something new is time not spent on reading or math. Teachers at the local level are simply stretched to capacity.”

According to Adrienne Haskins, a teacher at Watkins Elementary, she and her colleagues face “insurmountable demands” in the form of procedures, programs, documentation requirements and policies that leave little time for educating children.

“You have limited the abilities of many of us to reach our students,” she told the board. “We are using our own money to purchase lesson plans and supplies for the classroom. We are working jobs after teaching just to make ends meet. Insurance for most has gone up and new programs are constantly being thrown our way by those who haven’t been active in classrooms for many years. Who is ultimately winning here?”

Noting that Chesterfield County Public Schools employees rank 23rd out of 42 Central Virginia governments and school systems in average pay, the CEA has called on school officials to provide a 4 percent salary increase in fiscal year 2016.

Wilms told the School Board about a couple struggling financially after 16 years as teachers in the county.

“They are educated and dedicated, but they can’t make ends meet,” he said. “They live an average lifestyle, one with a mortgage, a car payment, and two kids. Indeed, they have cellphones, cable TV and Internet, without which they couldn’t do some of the tasks CCPS requires them to do on their own time, as there is no time to finish all their required tasks while they are at school. Even with coaching and tutoring, some months they can’t pay all their bills.”

Wilms also pointed out that the last two local salary increases haven’t made any difference in take-home pay because both have been offset by increases in employees’ Virginia Retirement System contributions and health insurance premiums.

“CEA’scallfora4percentraise seems modest when CCPS looks so bad in a region that it dominates,” he said. “These are embarrassing statistics. Nevertheless, we cannot change them with wishful thinking, nor by blaming our supervisors or our state government, even while there is plenty of blame to go around.”

Superintendent Marcus Newsome is expected to present his budget proposal for fiscal year 2016 at the School Board’s Jan. 27 meeting.

As part of a five-year financial plan, Coyner said the School Board will work with school officials to perform a compensation study and determine whether the school system is competitive with others in the region.

“Attracting and maintaining a top-quality workforce will continue to be a focus for our board,” she added.

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