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Approved RPS Budget Funds Facility Upgrades; Year-Long Calendar Still in Debate

George Wythe
George Wythe High School in Richmond. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM)

The Richmond school board approved a spending plan from Superintendent Jason Kamras for almost $55 million in expected federal emergency stimulus funding. 

The spending plan was approved by an 8 to 1 vote, with Board Member Kenya Gibson casting the single dissenting vote.

While the bulk of federal money would be spent during the next school year, RPS plans to use more than $15 million this year. A majority of this year’s funds, about $9 million, would go to facility enhancements to minimize the spread of COVID-19 spread in schools. These include new air filtration systems, soap and paper towel dispensers, hand sanitizer and additional custodial supplies.

This spending plan only addresses money granted by the federal government through the ESSER II fund, which is part of the second federal stimulus bill Congress approved in December. The board approved how to use city and state funds in a previous vote last week

Also, this week’s spending plan excludes Kamras’ contentious year-round calendar proposal, which would cost $14 million and come out of federal funding. After hearing concerns from board members and the public that the calendar adjustments are being rushed, Kamras suggested reserving those $14 million for general “additional learning support.”

“What I am recommending is we take all $14 million, and rather than say it’s for year-round, we just say it’s for ‘additional learning support.’ The board, understandably, can take additional time to determine what exactly that additional support will be. It could be a year-round calendar, which we’ll discuss at our next meeting, but the board can also decide to use those funds for other supports,” Kamras said. 

Still, he reiterated his advocacy for implementing the extended calendar, calling it “a good path” for RPS to follow.

The superintendent said he made this recommendation hoping the board would feel more comfortable moving forward with a vote as soon as possible. As Chairwoman Cheryl Burke explained, the board faces a looming deadline by which they can request the federal funds from the state’s Department of Education.

“I’m not gonna let $54 million go,” Burke said. “Once this budget is approved, we can go back and amend. We can go back and change this. The main thing right now is to come together collectively to vote that the administration does put in the application.”

Custodial hirings were also left up for debate. Kamras originally proposed hiring ten new custodians, but he raised that number to 17 last night, after he found more money in the budget. Still, some members, like Shonda Harris-Muhammed, said that’s not enough.

“I sincerely appreciate you diving in to find out where we can have additional custodians, but in order to support the reopening of schools, according to what the new regulations are, based on our numbers of schools and the square footage of many of our schools, I still stand on having 27 positions,” she said, acknowledging that all 27 custodians would likely not be hired by the start of the next school year.

Kamras urged caution with hiring too many employees using the federal stimulus money because it’s one-time funding. “We try to strike the balance between trying to put more positions out there, while not going so far that we would be in a tough spot and not be able to pay for those positions in a couple of years, and then have to lay off all those custodians,” he said.

The leftover funds to hire more custodians were originally intended for childcare, says Kamras. While RPS will receive $55 million from the federal government, the City of Richmond did not receive any relief funding, putting at risk its emergency childcare program. Because of this, the school district absorbed the city’s childcare costs as part of this new budget.

The city originally told RPS the childcare services would cost $2.5 million, but Kamras says it’s closer to $2.1 million, freeing up some money to hire additional custodial staff. The $2.1 million would be used for direct payments to churches and nonprofits offering childcare, like Blacktop Kings & Queens, Mt. Olivet Church and the YMCA of Greater Richmond.

Kamras’ budget also proposes hiring the following staff: 11 reading specialists, eight ESL teachers, two ESL specialists, three teachers for the Newcomer Academy, two part-time interpreters, five ICCs, two psychologists, two educational diagnosticians, seven middle school teachers, four counselors, three support specialists and three nurses.

The RPS budget for using federal stimulus funds now goes to VDOE, who must approve the district’s application in order to release the $55 million grant. Meanwhile, the school board’s proposal for using city funds is headed to Mayor Levar Stoney. He will incorporate the recommendations into his budget for the entire city and offer it to the City Council for approval. 

A finalized budget is expected in June.

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