Aiken County school board sets top 5 budget priorities for 2023-24

Jan. 28—The Aiken County Board of Education has named its top five budget priorities for the upcoming year.

The top priorities board members would like to see funded if the budget allows are a cap of pupil-to-teacher ratios in the classroom, math intervention support in elementary schools, an elementary in-school suspension aide, pay increase for classified staff and a security officer at every school.

For most of the school board members, capping the pupil-to-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grade classes was a top priority. Board member Dr. John Bradley said early childhood education is important because that's when kids start their education career. To help with that learning, he would like to see kindergarten, first and second grade classes capped.

"When it says 1 to 25, it means 1 to 25, it doesn't mean one class has 1 to 10 and another class had 1 to 30," Bradley said. "Every kindergarten should be 25 or less, that's part A. Part B is I would like to see second grade pupil/teacher ratio reduced to 1 to 16 just like first grade. Again the idea here is kindergarten, I would like to see those pupil/teacher ratios reduced also, but they've got an aide there."

The current pupil-to-teacher ratio is 20 to 1 (plus aide) for the 4K program, 25 to 1 (plus aide) for kindergarten, 16 to 1 for first grade, 23 to 1 for second, third, fourth and fifth grade, and 25 to 1 for middle and high school grades (for planning), according to Tray Traxler, the chief officer of finance for Aiken County Public School District.

Board member Brian Silas said his No. 1 item was math intervention support in elementary schools. He said he would like to see direct, one-on-one student engagement that would help students who struggle in math overcome a learning gap and also help with test scores.

Board chair Cameron Nuessle said he believes there is a need for an ISS aide at every elementary school.

"We've got about 20 elementary schools and maybe about eight of them fund it with local funding at the school level and that's their choice," Nuessle said. I would say something like that, when you look at an elementary school that has one principal, one assistant principal and that never gets bigger based on how big the school is, sometimes it would be helpful to have a behavior resource like ISS if it's done correctly for a lot of different reasons. That's just an idea."

Board member Patrice Rhinehart-Jackson asked board members to consider a pay increase for classified staff, which would include cafeteria staff, janitorial staff and maintenance.

Jim Broome, school board member, said he would like to see a security officer at every elementary school.

"Every middle and high school, we are committed to providing one," Superintendent King Laurence said. "That doesn't mean the officers are available through the various law enforcement divisions, but we're committed to getting those filled."

During the Jan. 17 meeting, Traxler told board members the must items for the 2023-24 budget are step increases for teachers and all eligible employees, any increase required by the state minimum teacher scale, increases to state minimum bus driver scale, increases in employer contributions for state retirement and increases in health insurance.

Highland Springs Middle School is scheduled to open for the 2023-24 school year with some additional costs. Traxler said that while a lot of the teaching staff would follow a redistribution of students, several positions will be added including principal, assistant principal, nurse, secretary/bookkeeper and more.

Starting in the 2023-24 school year, schools will be required to follow S. 946, a state bill requiring 30 minutes of unencumbered time for full-time teachers kindergarten through fifth grade and for elementary, middle and high school special education teachers, Traxler said. Unencumbered time means that the teacher will not have any assigned duties during that time. To assist with that time, the school district is estimating a need of two aide-level FTE per elementary school, for a total of 42 aides for an estimated cost of $1.3 million. There are talks of using aides in other aspects at the school, including having them work as safety monitors by checking that doors are locked and helping with the weapons detectors.

Other potential priorities discussed included an update to internet/network at schools, change head counselors to 12-month contracts, competitive salaries based on salary study, school level 504 coordinator, retention incentives, contract days added to attendance clerks, increase virtual learning options, mental health resources, accurate GPS bus tracking and adding a 28th step to the teacher salary schedule.

The next budget workshop is scheduled for April 11, with the first reading of the budget scheduled for April 18. A budget hearing is scheduled for May 9 and the second budget reading is set for May 23. The latest date for budget approval is June 13.