Pharis pushes for investment in academics

Grady County School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis outlined some of his budget priorities to the Board of Education during a budget workshop Tuesday night, with a primary emphasis of increased investment into academic programs and technology.
Stressing the school system’s strategic goal of building the best school system in Georgia and one that provides for the needs of all students, Dr. Pharis shared some of his ideas for 2011-2012 operating budget with the school board.
Even at a scaled back proposal the board could be looking at increasing spending by nearly $546,000.
“We intend to improve every aspect of this school system. I think we have a good school system now, but with a little more focus and prioritizing, which we are doing that through our strategic plan, we can be even better,” Dr Pharis said.
Over the last two years, Pharis says more than 20 teaching positions have been cut, para pros cut, $2 million plus in salaries cut, and no equipment budget in order to survive severe state budget cuts to public school funding.
Dr. Pharis says the system was able to stay afloat financially because of an influx of federal money into the nation’s public schools.
“Thanks to the federal funds and the cuts we’ve made locally, today we are ok. We don’t know what other cuts are out there, but we are expecting to end this fiscal year with a reserve of $2.5 to $2.7 million,” the superintendent said.
Pharis says the school system has needs that must be addressed and because of tough decisions made by the board over the last several years there is now money in the bank to invest back into the school system.
The plan outlined by the superintendent would not only invest more into academics, but it would also maintain a cash reserve fund of $1.5 million.
“We don’t want to over spend, but we can do things we want and need to do if we are going to meet our goal of meeting every child’s needs,” Dr. Pharis said.
Much of the superintendent’s focus is expanding the rigor of the local curriculum. Under his preliminary budget proposal the superintendent is hoping to add an additional foreign language teacher to the county staff. The teacher would not only teach high school classes, but would also teach classes to eighth grade students enrolled in the system’s Pre-AP program, which is housed at Washington Middle School
The overall goal is to expand the Advanced Placement course offerings at Cairo High School to provide additional rigor as well as to compete with competing private schools and public institutions outside the county.
Under the Pharis plan, two years from now, CHS students can graduate with AP credits in English, Math, Science and Foreign Language. According to Dr. Pharis, the CHS AP offerings will total 11 compared to five at Brookwood School and 13 at the Scholars Academy, both in Thomasville.
Pharis estimates the cost of the additional foreign language teacher plus benefits will be approximately $61,000.
The superintendent also wants to hire an additional science teacher at the high school. Currently three teachers are being paid extended day to teach science classes, but Pharis would eliminate the extended day pay and roll that into the salary of additional science teacher. He estimates the annual cost to be $40,000.
Another major component of Pharis’ plan is $105,000 in additional funding for professional development. Originally the superintendent was considering a $225,000 investment, but has since scaled down the program. Under the revised plan all teachers and paraprofessionals would be required to complete a minimum of two professional development courses. Stipends would be paid to school personnel for successful completion.
Dr. Pharis says the system cannot be successful unless it provides “strong professional development” opportunities for school system personnel.
Also impacting the academic program is Pharis’ call for additional parapros at the schools. At a minimum, he would like to add one at Shiver and one at Whigham, which would impact the budget by about $31,000.
Board members were reminded of a program Pharis unveiled last year which is a plan to offer math remediation to students who failed to meet math standards in grades five and eight. Rather than holding the students back a grade, but at same time making sure they are prepared for the curriculum in the upper grades, Pharis wants to hire on additional math teacher, whose time would be split between Shiver and Whigham.
“Washington and Cairo High School currently have the staff to handle the remediation in math, but Whigham and Shiver don’t,” Dr. Pharis said.
The superintendent says in addition to remediation, the students will also be taught sixth and ninth grade math concepts so that they do not fall behind.
“The reason so many high schools struggle to make Adequate Yearly Progress is because kids have been sent through who are not prepared. We’re going to do something about it. It may not work, but I believe it will be a step in the right direction,” Dr. Pharis said.
The cost of the additional math teacher to work with struggling students is estimated at $61,000 annually.
Other budget priorities discussed Tuesday night with the board included: $30,000 for an additional technology department technician; $250,000 investment in classroom technology; $50,000 for school equipment purchases; $27,500 to finance Project SEE next school term; $25,000 for data analysis; and $25,000 for a part-time position to work with students who struggle academically, but are active and engaged in vocational coursework.
One budget priority that Pharis failed to include in his plan, but intends to add relates to the Pre-K program.
Under new state rules, Pre-K teachers’ salaries will be frozen at current levels. These teachers will no longer be paid for training and experience like all other teachers. Pharis explained that newly hired Pre-K teachers will be hired at a base salary that does not increase based on academic degrees or years of experience. On top of that, Pre-K teachers will also only work for 160 days, and the superintendent is not certain if that 160 days includes any planning days or not. Under his proposal, current Pre-K teachers who wish to move into elementary school classes will be allowed to move as vacancies occur and new Pre-K teachers will be hired.
Pharis wants to do this to maintain the quality teachers who have taught Pre-K but who will not want to be penalized by the salary limitations. The superintendent believes over the next two years the eleven Pre-K teachers currently employed will be able to transfer to other jobs. To cover the difference in salary Pharis is seeking an additional $51,000 which would cover the additional pay over the new Pre-K requirements. Pharis says this would be a one-time deal and noted that the system could not afford to do otherwise.
“What you will have is Pre-K become a turnaround program and you will always have young teachers and not experienced teachers,” Pharis said.
However, he said that with youth comes advantages just as it is also advantageous to have experienced teachers in the classroom.
Dr. Pharis does not believe the Pre-K program will suffer instructionally by having a shorter school calendar or with having two additional students in each class. He did warn board members that they may here complaints that the system is delaying scheduling of Pre-K classes.
“We are waiting as long as we can because we don’t want to schedule eleven classes like we have now and end up with having only ten classes,” Dr. Pharis said.
Unless Grady County earns additional slots, it is likely the county will lose one Pre-K class next term.
Pharis and the school board members also discussed the pros and cons of shifting to electronic textbooks from printed texts as well as the need to increase elementary school lunch prices by 15 cents in order to meet federal mandates.
Following the marathon budget session, the board retreated behind closed doors with Dr. Pharis to discuss a personnel issue. No action was taken after the meeting was reopened to the public.

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