Dr. Mark Neighbors speaks at ‘Business over Breakfast’ event

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By Michelle Key
Publisher

The Opelika Chamber of Commerce held their quarterly Business over Breakfast meeting last Thursday morning. Chamber President Pam Powers-Smith introduced Antoine Harvis who led an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Brooke Kastner then introduced the guest speaker, Opelika City Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Neighbors. Neighbors has been working in the Opelika school system since 1991 when he began his career in Opelika as principal of Opelika Middle School, a position he served in for 10 years. He became superintendent in 2007.
Neighbors spoke of the humbling experience and satisfaction of working with a group of people that are vitally important to the community. “We are very fortunate to be in a county that values what we do for children and the Lee County Youth Development Center is a part of that as that as well,” Neighbors said. “There is a lot of synergy and that is very important to the success of our community and teaching our children today.”
The Budget
The budget for the current school year is about $55 million with approximately 41 percent of that coming from local sources.
The budget lists $12 million dollars in the reserve account, some of which is held in trusts, scholarship accounts and so forth, leaving approximately $10 – $11 million as cash reserves.
The average monthly operating expense is between $3.2 – $3.4 million which means that the school systems has right at three months of operating expense held in reserve. “We don’t operate out of reserve, we try not to budget out of reserve,” Neighbors said. “We generally always have an ‘in the black’ budget but every once in a while we will have something pop up.”
Teachers of the Year
“As I mentioned when I opened, you’ve got to have good people, but equally important to that is giving them an opportunity to work in good places,” Neighbors said. “I think we are very focused. We are here to teach children and about children growing developmentally appropriately. That is our mission.”
Two important things that Neighbors said that he looks at when considering something new to introduce to the schools are:
• does it add to the academic achievement of the children which ultimately adds to their success and
• does it improve the quality of life of the children?
The Teachers of the Year will be recognized at the next city council meeting on Feb. 5.
Test Scores & AP Classes
Opelika High School students surpassed the state average for all three of the benchmarks (English, math and science) for the ACT.
“We teach standards to children, we teach a curriculum to children. We do not teach to a test. That does not prepare children for life,” Neighbors asserted.
Opelika started offering Advanced Placement classes around 14 years ago according to Neighbors. The school system offers a wide range of AP classes including AP Art. In May 2018, 51 percent of students that sat for AP exams scored a 3 or higher compared to the state average of only 43 percent. AP exam scores of 3 or higher may earn students college credits depending on the institution’s individual policy on the program.
The number of students that are taking AP classes has increased over the years with 227 out of roughly 1350 students at the high school taking the advanced classes in 2018.
Career Tech
Program
Neighbors spoke on the Career Tech Program and the importance on teaching the children that they can have opportunities in industries to have careers, not just jobs.
“My job is not to create a pipeline of work. My job is to provide pathways so children have choices, Neighbors said. “You want your child to have choices, but sometimes it is hard to get them to focus.”
Opelika High School offers Career and Technical Education courses in the following programs:
• Agriculture
• Computer Science
• Culinary
• Education & Training
• Health Sciences
• Information Technology
• Marketing & Finance
• Video Production
Classroom Support
Classroom support is an area of great focus with OCS. When the state cut funding for the reading coaches, Opelika, with the support of local revenues, was able to keep this program in place by making them instructional coaches. Every school has them.
These individuals work with the teachers to work with the new teachers in order to help them be successful. They help with curriculum development, instructional planning and professional development.
A few years ago, Neighbors said that they recognized that there was need to provide more detailed math coaching to ensure that teachers were able to keep up to date on new math standards. A position was created as an elementary math coach to work with the instructional coaches every week. Neighbors stated that they are looking at the possibility of doing the same thing for the reading program and will be looking to hire someone when they find the right person. “One of the things we’re realizing is that not all the universities do a good job in teaching phonetic awareness and instructional practices for phonics for kids,” Neighbors said. “We spend a lot of energy and focus on our planning to make sure that our kids and our teachers have the best chance to be successful.”
Upcoming Vote
On Feb. 19, there will be a county-wide special election for the renewal and continuation of several district school taxes. This is not a vote to increase on the current level of tax collected but to continue the tax levies throughout Auburn, Opelika and Lee County at the current rates for an additional period of 28 successive years starting Oct. 1, 2021. A mill is one-tenth of one cent, according to the Alabama Department of Revenue
Tax Rate Details
Opelika
• 1 mill property tax – shared by all of Lee County
• 4 mill property tax – shared by all of Lee County
• 3 mill – Opelika only
• 1.5 mill for Lee County Youth Development Center
Auburn
• 1 mill – shared by all of Lee County
• 4 mill – shared by all of Lee County
• 3 mill – Auburn only
• 1.5 mill for Lee County Youth Development Center
Lee County
• 1 mill tax – shared by all of Lee County
• 4 mill tax – shared by all of Lee County
• 3 mill district tax – Lee County only
• 3 mill district tax – Lee County only
• 5 mill district tax – Lee County only
• 5 mill district tax – Lee County only
• 1.5 mill for Lee County Youth Development Center
Neighbors invited Laura Cooper, Executive Director of the LCYDC, to speak on the importance of these taxes to the organization. “That 1.5 mills represents about 25 percent of our budget. It was renewed in 1991 and we’re on the ballot to be renewed again,” Cooper said. “If you believe in children, if you believe in the vibrancy of our community, I believe that you will go to the polls and vote for that tax.”
In closing, Neighbors briefly touched on some of the challenges that school systems across the nation are facing with teacher shortages and mental health issues being the two biggest.
The presenting sponsor of the event was Glynn-Smith Chevrolet, Buick-GMC.

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