The St. Mary’s board of education room was more crowded than usual for a second Wednesday of the month, and it wasn’t because of quarterly art recognitions.

The seats were filled with people who wanted to comment on the school board’s proposed $234 million fiscal 2021 budget. Board members heard both praise and criticism from school employees during the Feb. 12 budget hearing.

They first heard from Jill Morris, president of the Education Association of St. Mary’s County. She wore a blue EASMC shirt along with a dozen or so other educators sitting in the audience to show solidarity.

“There will be no ripping up of anything tonight,” the EASMC president said. “This is a great budget that puts people first.”

Morris said she was proud to be part of the school system and proud of Superintendent Scott Smith for tending to the needs of students and staff. She mentioned negotiations for employee contracts were ongoing and hopes they finish up this month.

A presentation of the budget showed 93% of the $234 million will go toward school staff including health care, Social Security, retirement and workers compensation.

Following Morris was Kristie Mattingly, a prekindergarten special education teacher at Banneker Elementary, who gave some examples of what it’s like to teach special education students, such as the 10 hours needed to put together an individualized education program, and how some teachers have between 10 and 20 students who need them. She thanked the school board for advocating for the special education department.

The special education department requested $776,082, which includes five new teachers, five new paraeducators, a new behavioral mental health professional and a new secretary. A grant will fund two additional teachers and two more paraeducators.

Pat Gronert, a 20-year science teacher at Chopticon High School, also talked about teachers’ heavy workloads. With a busy schedule and an average of two emails every half hour, she said she barely has time to check her inbox. She requested fewer meetings and more professional development time. She did thank the board for next school year’s calendar, which was approved earlier that day.

The 2020-2021 calendar, which marks the first day of school as Aug. 31, has three professional days and 11 early dismissal days. The 2021-2022 calendar has two professional days and 13 early dismissal days.

Not everyone was there to thank the school board, however. Dana Pettie, a contracted school bus driver, said there was a lack of support for drivers.

“Many bus drivers feel as though they have been the forgotten ones for way too long when it comes to the BOE budget,” Pettie said. She added that drivers often leave because the pay is low, or take second jobs instead.

She said the budget is proposing to give contractors $20 an hour and $15 an hour per bus driver attendant. Drivers are also offered a tier system that would give more pay to long-time drivers. But Pettie said some contractors are going to pay drivers a flat rate regardless of experience level.

“It will not be fair for a driver or attendant, who has just obtained their certification and/or license, to make as much as someone who has been driving or attending for 10-plus years,” she said.

Her comments were followed by fellow bus drivers Tina Shirley, who said drivers do not receive retirement, besides social security, and how they lose money on a sick day, and CeeCee Lyons, who spoke about how hard it is to find a substitute driver, how they lost their life insurance and how their pay is lagging behind that of neighboring counties.

“I’m not here to place blame on anyone. I’m just begging you … to take our valid concerns very seriously,” Lyons said.

The transportation department requested $1,596,821 for the fiscal 2021 budget. It includes a contracted bus route fee increase and an hourly contracted driver/attendant rate increase.

Sharon Page, a nurse at Hollywood Elementary, encouraged board members to “just say no” when they speak with the county commissioners, who typically fund less than the school board requests each year. Page added that she and others will be there for the school board when that time comes, cheering them on.

The last to speak at the podium Wednesday evening was Tammy Payne, an eighth-grade teacher at Leonardtown Middle School. She said her son worked for the school system as a special education paraeducator, but had to quit because a job at a cigar bar paid $5,000 more a year. She said he just had his first child but is below the poverty level.

“We do fight for every single dollar we get,” Karin Bailey, chair of the school board, said. “And it’s not always pretty.”

Smith said they are proposing increases for the bus drivers, and that they need to look at the pay for paraeducators. He said his son, who is also a paraeducator and has a college degree, makes $23,000 a year. “We have a long road ahead of us,” he said.

Twitter: @KristenEntNews

Twitter: @KristenEntNews