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Richmond School Board compromises on budget, virtual academy

People seated in auditorium chairs with signs
People hold signs is support of various budget issues at a Richmond School Board meeting Monday, February 28. (Photo: Meg Schiffres/VPM News)

Following a long night of heated discussion, the Richmond City School Board voted on Monday to approve the next school year’s budget. The version passed by the board contained compromises on both sides but was unanimously approved.

“A compromise means everybody's happy and everybody's upset,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said. “I'm happy that we've passed the budget, I’m happy that I was able to preserve some key staff members that I think are critical to our work.”

The over half a billion dollar budget passed by the board included a 5% raise in salaries for all staff members, including teachers, bus drivers, custodians and food service personnel. Full-time staff will also receive a $3,000 bonus next year, and part-time employees will get a $1,500 bonus. The hourly rate earned by substitute teachers will also increase under the budget approved by the board.

Board members did not debate the need for these raises during their final meeting on the budget. What was highly contested however were dramatic cuts to Richmond’s Virtual Academy.

The Richmond Virtual Academy began in response to the pandemic and provides virtual learning options to elementary school students and students with disabilities of all ages. It serves about 500 students in grades pre-K through five and another 500 students in RPS’s secondary schools, according to RPS Director of Advocacy and Outreach Matthew Stanley.

Last month, teachers in the academy were told by Kamras that all but 10 of them will lose their jobs under his proposed budget. According to RPS Outreach and Communications Coordinator Sarah Abubaker, 70 teachers currently work in that program as of Monday.

A long queue of public commenters at the meeting Monday objected to the superintendent’s proposal, saying that limiting the program will jeopardize the health of vulnerable students.

Emily Spencer is a special education teacher at the virtual academy. She criticized the board for considering taking away virtual options not only for students with disabilities, but also for other students who thrive in those learning environments.

“Many of our students are thriving in the virtual classroom and I know many more would love to be able to join us,” Spencer said. “How are we being equitable if we're only offering seats to those students that fit into a narrow predetermined category? Don't all of our students deserve the same educational opportunities?”

Elise Boyd also works at the Virtual Academy. She says taking away virtual learning options will have a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and students of color.

“This is ultimately a question of equity. We state that we're a district that leads with love but removing the option for families where they are successful is the opposite of equity,” Boyd said.

Omari Sims is an elementary school student at the virtual academy. She said she’s afraid to return to in-person education.

“I do not want to go to real school because I do not want to catch COVID and a whole lot of kids are catching COVID. And I do not know why you guys are trying to take virtual away from us,” Sims said.

Under the budget ultimately passed by the board, the district will retain 30 educators in their Virtual Academy next year. Another 20 teachers currently working in-person will also be given the opportunity to transition to the academy next year, according to board member Jonathan Young.

“What we did this evening was include an additional $1,630,000 to retain an additional 20 teachers for a total aggregate of 30. But on top of that, we also prioritize allowing for 20 teaching positions, 20 positions that currently are allocated for in-person, to instead be assigned to Richmond Virtual Academy for an aggregate of 50 teachers,” Young said.

The preservation of more positions at the Virtual Academy were among the amendments to the budget that board members accepted from Young. His amendments cut the superintendents’ proposed $554,408,315 budget by $6 million. To pay for those cuts, the board agreed to decrease its spending in several areas including student and teacher technology.

For example, the district will save over $10 million now that it plans not to invest in replacing and upgrading its Chromebooks and laptops due to the fact that most students have returned to in-person classes. Young says another reason for this reduction is because these devices are disappearing and the board still doesn’t have clarity on why.

“Yours truly, along with some other folks, think it would be highly irresponsible to spend another $10.2 million of the taxpayers money for Chromebooks when we can't even account for thousands of missing Chromebooks,” Young said.

Board members have been debating the details of the budget for months, and last night that discussion abruptly turned toward the potential firing of the district’s chief operating officer and chief wellness officer.

Last week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Richmond School Board Chair Shonda Harris-Muhammad sent an email to Kamras asking him to restore funding for the Virtual Academy and requesting that the superintendent eliminate COO Alana Gonzalez’ job and the vacant Chief Wellness Officer position. Without those changes, the Times-Dispatch reported that Harris-Mohammad said she and other board members were willing to delay budget negotiations.

In response to the publication of that story, dozens of community members attended the school board meeting and spoke against what they perceived as threats to Kamras’ authority; they. gathered outside the meeting with signs reading “Let Kamras Lead.” Grady Hart was among the community members who chastised the board for threatening Kamras’ administrative staff.

“It is misguided at best to suggest that we cut the Chief Operations Officer and the Chief Wellness Officer at a time when we are set to begin building not one, but two new schools. And as we continue in the throws of a global pandemic. Let Jason Kamras lead,” Hart said.

Some board members objected to the cost of these positions, saying expenses in the district were too top-heavy. Willie Hillard was the only member of the community to support their position.

“The administration of Richmond public schools is too top-heavy and salaries are too large for a city of this size,” Hillard said.

According to Kamras, these positions are critical to manage the academic, social and emotional health of his students.

“I don't know of any $400 million organization with 4,000 employees that doesn't have a Chief Operating Officer. Absent one, every department in that portfolio, in addition to the rest of the cabinet,would report directly to me. That is simply not tenable and would clearly set me up to fail,” Kamras said. “Without these two roles, I can not effectively lead this division. I welcome accountability, but please don't tie my hands behind my back and expect me to perform miracles.”

In the end, the board allowed Kamras to retain those positions.

The budget approved by the School Board will now be sent to the City Council for consideration.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Richmond Virtual Academy serves 500 secondary students with disabilities. In fact, the academy serves 500 secondary students, not all of whom have disabilities. We have updated the story and apologize for the error.