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Richmond Schools Budget Scrutinized After COVID-19 Shortfall

People sitting in a room for a public meeting
A Richmond school board meeting last June. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

It’s been a tough school year for educators, students and school officials. First, in-person learning came to a screeching halt after Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, and soon afterwards ordered schools closed for the rest of the academic school year. Now, districts across the country -- including Richmond Public Schools -- are faced with budget shortfalls due to COV1D-19.

The district is facing a $24 million shortfall largely due to the pandemic. Although the city budgeted $6 million more for Richmond Public Schools than last year, the district is receiving $10 million less than originally requested due to a drop in revenue projections.  The state of Virginia already cut new funding for school counselors, and is “freezing” increased pre-K funding, teacher pay raises and additional funding for high-poverty schools

Richmond schools are expected to receive $13.2 million in federal CARES Act funding, although it’s unclear when the district will receive the funding. The district already plans to allocate $4.5 million of that for an added week of instructional time, and $1.5 million for overtime pay for nutrition workers and custodians, who’ve been working to keep students fed during the pandemic. Other items including funding for technology, a deep cleaning before schools reopen and more. 

It’s unclear whether or not the district will reopen in the fall or not. According to a document prepared by the administration, “in-person instruction should not commence while social distancing requirements are in effect.” There have been mentions about year-round school at recent meetings, as the Richmond-Times Dispatch first reported. But it’s unclear how much funding that would take. 

The current budget proposal preserves a 2% raise for teachers and staff, on top of a “step” increase. It also includes $1.5 million for an October, 2021 step raise for paraprofessionals, something Cheryl Burke -- the district’s vice chair -- has been advocating for. 

“Our teacher aides have been in the background for so long,” Burke said in an interview with VPM. “They go wherever they’re needed during the course of the day, but usually they do have an assignment. ” 

Those assignments can vary, Burke says, from filling in as a substitute teacher, to helping students with special needs, to helping other teachers work with students in small groups. Paraprofessionals are required by the Virginia Department of Education to have two years of college education, and Burke says many are only making around $20,000. 

Before the pandemic, the district had been working to expand bus routes and make sure that all pre-K students had transportation. While much of the funding for that effort has been preserved, there are lots of proposed cuts -- including extra support for English Language Learners and students with disabilities, extra AP teachers and new full-time bus operators just to name a few. 

Linda Owen, school board chair of the city’s school district, says having to decide what to cut is one of the most difficult things she’s ever been part of. “Everything that we put in that budget was something we felt strongly we needed in Richmond Public Schools,” Owen said in an interview with VPM earlier this month. 

A quarter of a $2 million allocation to develop a STEM program at two middle schools, Henderson and Martin Luther King Jr., was cut. The programs were part of a plan to create theme-based middle and high school programming. The district estimates it will cost over the $1.5 million they have left to implement it, and hopes to pursue grant funding to supplement the cost.

The district also wants to move forward this fall with new K-8 curricula for both math and English Language Arts. Although, officials say individual schools would decide when to move forward with each, depending on their comfort level with the material. The district started piloting a new math curriculum last year in eight elementary schools. This year, the pilot has grown to all elementary schools except three, and all middle schools.

The district plans to pay for curricula materials using savings from FY20. An additional $600,000 is allotted for professional development, both contracted and teacher-led, which would be covered in the FY21 budget. Despite concerns about timing from some teachers, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras insists that investing in new learning materials is vital now more than ever. The board is expected to receive an update on the curriculum adoption process Monday night, and vote on curricula adoption June 1.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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