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Members of the schools and education committee of the Cumberland County Commission tour the new Transition Academy under construction on the Phoenix School campus.

The school system continues to struggle with staffing well into the school year, with positions still open for classroom teachings, learning loss interventionists, teaching assistants, custodians and bus drivers.

“We need employees,” Director of Schools Ina Maxwell told the schools and education committee of the Cumberland County Commission. “It’s just like the business world with the need for employees.”

Open teaching positions include science and social studies teachers, a traveling physical education teacher, high school teachers, elementary teachers, school counselors, and an elementary art teacher.

“We have retired teachers we have recruited to come back,” Maxwell said, explaining how the school system is covering those classrooms at this time. She encouraged any retired teachers interested in returning to the classroom to contact the school system.

“That’s how we’re covering that right now as best we can. It’s been a challenge,” Maxwell said, adding it’s a similar problem seen across the state and nation.

The school system also applied for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief — or ESSER — funding to hire 24 learning loss interventionists. So far, 17 have been hired. 

These part-time positions are mostly being filled by retired educators serving more than 570 students.

“That is a wealth of experience that they can share with our students,” Maxwell said.

The interventionists work with students one-on-one, in small groups, or take on whole-class instruction to accelerate learning.

Earlier in the fall, with Pleasant Hill Elementary down to one custodian, volunteers from Cumberland Fellowship Church reached out to Principal Tammy Knipp. More than 150 people showed up to help conduct a deep clean of the school. 

Maxwell said all the school staff had been pitching in to help keep the school clean and healthy for students.

One issue that may be hampering efforts to attract employees is the pay. Teacher assistant pay starts at $8.83 an hour while custodians start at $9.41 an hour. The school system does pay 100% of a full-time employees health insurance premium for an individual plan.

Wendell Wilson, 6th District commissioner, said he talked with a bus driver who expressed concern about the pay offered for new drivers, currently $47.32 a day.

“She said we can’t get the good bus drivers because we’re not paying the beginning bus drivers enough,” Wilson said. “We need to help these folks, and she needs the bus drivers to get our kids to school. When you find a way, talk with us.”

Wilson relayed a comment from Jim Blalock, 8th District commissioner, who voted against the county’s budget this past year.

“He said, ‘We’re not funding education or our county services,’” Wilson said. “That’s Jim’s heart. He told me that again last week. He said we need to help our folks who are dealing with our children and our public services.”

Enrollment is up in the school system this year compared to last year. The school system ended the last academic year with 6,643 students. There were 7,040 enrolled as of Oct. 8, 2021. The school system reported 7,207 students in February 2020, prior to the extended school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school system reduced its budget to reflect 9.5 fewer teaching positions for this year, though they did include funding for up to eight teachers if enrollment increased.

The ESSER funding will also provide new playground equipment, replace old bleachers, help update HVAC equipment in schools and replace old, less-efficient windows and doors.

The $6.7 million in funding must be spent by June 2023.

“These are things principals have requested almost every year on their budget requests,” said Kacee Harris, chief financial officer. “We have to say that’s a ‘want or a need.’ If it’s a safety issue, we’ll get it repaired. But we have never in our collective memory been able to build new playgrounds.”

Schools often have to fundraise to provide new playground equipment. Bleachers have been prioritized, but Harris noted most bleachers were original to the school.

Maxwell said, “Never before have we been allowed to spend federal money on these items.”

She added there would be playground equipment that would be accessible for all students. Schools will be allotted $30,000 each for equipment and $10,000 for installation.

The school system’s grant proposal for the third round of ESSER funding, which includes $15 million in projects, is still under state review.

While counties and municipalities are receiving advance funding for projects and tracking how money is spent, the school system’s COVID-19 relief funds are being reimbursed after bills are paid.

ESSER 3 funds must be spent by June 2024.

“We are under a timeline,” Maxwell said. “When you complicate that with supply and demand and what may be floating around in the ocean that we need here, it could create some challenges.”

Nancy Hyder, 2nd District commissioner, asked how that would impact the school system’s fund balance and available cash for operating expenses.

Maxwell said once a bill is paid, it takes about 10 days to receive reimbursement.

“They [the state] have promised that they’ll try to do it more quickly,” Maxwell said. “We’re hopeful in all this electronic turnaround that it can be a rather smooth transition without causing us any issues with the fund balance.”

The school system is completing several large facility projects, including construction of a Transition Academy for students ages 18-22 and roofing projects at multiple schools.

The Transition Academy is on the Phoenix School campus next to Central Services. Teacher George Kington works with students on life skills and independent living. The facility will include a home-like environment with kitchen and laundry facilities.

The building was a joint effort of the school system and Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Crossville’s building construction program.

“It’s a good learning opportunity for our students,” said Cliff Wightman, president of TCAT at Crossville.

Kim Chamberlin with Upland Design said the building is 1,700 square feet, with accessible facilities, office space for the instructor and an open floor plan.

First budgeted in the 2019-’20 budget with $150,000, the project ran into some challenges, including the need for a large concrete slab for the building foundation.

The project was carried over into the 2020-’21 budget, and there will be a budget amendment for the 2021-’22 budget as the project was not completed in the last fiscal year.

It still needs the interior completed and furnish-

ings.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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