Board of Education virtual meeting

Watauga County Board of Education members and student representatives met virtually on April 6. Pictured: Brenda Reese, Emerson Huffman, Gary Childers, Haleigh Lawson, Jay Fenwick, Ron Henries, Scott Elliott and Steve Combs.

BOONE — With Watauga County Schools’ spring break scheduled for Monday through Friday, April 13-17, remote learning and meal distribution will cease during that time, school leaders confirmed.

School system employees will not be distributing meals during the spring break week, but Superintendent Scott Elliott said when families pick up meals on Friday, April 10, they can also gather six additional meals — three breakfasts and three lunches/dinners.

“We are encouraging staff and students to take a break to be with their families and loved ones,” said WCS spokesperson Garrett Price. “They’ve done an incredible amount of work in a short space of time, and they deserve some time off.”

Elliott shared information with Watauga County Board of Education members during the group’s first-ever virtual meeting on April 6. The meeting was live streamed via the school system’s Youtube channel, and about 22 people tuned in.

Teachers are working extremely hard to provide remote learning to students, Elliott said, and 3,800 Chromebook laptops have been distributed to students in grades 3-12. In its first three weeks since schools were closed in response to COVID-19, the Watauga County Schools system served approximately 50,102 meals to students, Elliott said.

Lunch and a packed breakfast for the next day are being served at Bethel, Mabel, Green Valley, Valle Crucis and Watauga High schools from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each of the days that schools are closed for students. Dinner and breakfast for the next day are served at Hardin Park School and Brushy Fork Baptist Church, located at 3915 U.S. 421 North in Vilas, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. each of the days school is closed for students.

All children 18 and younger may get free meals at these sites regardless of where they live or attend school in Watauga County.

Elliott said he hoped the schools and board would be able to return to normal operations in May, but that the school system would continue to do what is needed to continue operations regardless of circumstances.

During the last few weeks, Elliott said he has seen many messages about how the pandemic will be a catalyst for reforming a “broken” public schools system. Elliott posted on Twitter on April 4, stating, “To all the public school haters, social media stars/self promoters, and critical friends: we appreciate all the advice about re-envisioning education but right now we’re busy loving on our students and feeding the community. We’ll catch back up with you in the fall.”

The tweet caught the attention of those who agreed and disagreed with Elliott, and had approximately 6,000 retweets as of April 7. He said that the positive reaction he has seen shows that some people now realize that public schools are essential to the community’s wellbeing.

Elliott said he felt the need to lift up and encourage public school employees to buffer them from what he call nonsense and noise.

“At a time when teachers are working twice as hard as normal and our child nutrition workers and bus drivers are delivering thousands of meals a day, they don’t need to be told that they need to be fixed,” Elliott said. “Right now, especially in our small communities where pretty much everything else is shut down, these folks are the heroes.”

One response to the tweet was from Twitter user Ali Solomon, who stated that she was helping to start a school and that, “We critics — most of us carrying the same load as you by the way — will build a new model of school.”

Elliott said educators see public education as a reform movement that improves lives and communities, and that he believed that this pandemic may cause significant changes to how society thinks about and provides public education.

“Public schools change lives and improve communities in ways nothing else can,” Elliott said. “Our teachers need to hear that their hard work and purpose is noticed and appreciated.”

Elliott encouraged public school educators and staff members to continue to be positive and to stay focused on the mission to support students. He said the WCS team is doing a tremendous service to the community, and he thinks the community is deeply appreciative of their hard work.

Additionally, Elliott said that the pandemic may be a realization to many that educators can do more with technology than originally thought. Elliott expressed gratitude to the Watauga County Board of Commissioners for previous funding of technology and equipment that assisted with the school system being able to transition to a remote learning platform.

“We would not be in the position that we’re in now if it were not for funding from the commissioners and the priority that the board of education has made on how to fund our computer devices,” Elliott said. “There are school systems across the state, including the largest districts in the state, that still have not started remote learning.”

The board also discussed the school system’s budget for 2020-21. Elliott said WCS is in the early stages of the development of its budget, and that up until now the finance committee has been meeting to discuss budget items. The board also met with the commissioners in February during the county’s two-day budget planning retreat to discuss funding priorities. The board approved the draft budget, with a 5.63 percent increase from last year’s budget in current expenses ($14,985,847).

A memo to the board highlighted six current expense budget items that were proposed to see funding increases. These items included $165,000 for teacher assistants for the exceptional children’s day treatment program, $54,000 for diagnostic screeners/online intervention resources, $36,000 for an EcoStructure program, $30,000 for the pre-k program, $7,500 for physical education instructional supplies and $6,300 for the educators handbook program.

According to Elliott, the request for an increase in funding for the EC day treatment program was one that was made by principals. The day treatment program — already in place at Blowing Rock School — combines mental health and education services. Elliott said the hope is to expand the program at the middle school and high school level.

Elliott also explained that funding for the EcoStructure would be for the school system’s outdated energy management program that consists of the computer software that manages WCS’s heating and cooling systems. He said the system is a “must fund” project.

The next step in the budget process includes a meeting with Elliott, Director of Finance Ly Marze, County Manager Deron Geouque and county Finance Director Misty Watson to review the school system’s needs and projected expenditures. WCS administrators will then meet again with the commissioners during the county’s work budget session that is currently planned for May 14-15 to discuss the WCS current expense budget and capital outlay expenditures.

Elliott mentioned that administrators are still unsure if a state budget would include any cuts or expansions that could impact WCS’s budget.

“It’s not beyond the imagination that one of the many results of this current epidemic will be some tightening of our state budget as a result of reductions in income tax and sales tax revenue,” Elliott said.

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