Advocates seek to save programs on Richmond schools budget chopping block

Ronald E. Carrington | 2/10/2022, 6 p.m.
Fully fund computer-based learning. And maintain the current cadre of 21 family and community engagement ambassadors who are critical to …
Mr. Kamras

Fully fund computer-based learning.

And maintain the current cadre of 21 family and community engagement ambassadors who are critical to keeping Spanish-speaking students engaged with Richmond Public Schools.

That was the gist of the message that parents, teachers and other speakers passionately expressed to the Richmond School Board Monday night during a public hearing on the proposed budget that board members are now working to finalize.

Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras is proposing to slash the staff assigned to the Richmond Virtual Academy from 80 to 10 people. Currently, they serve about 550 students from families that have opted not to return to in-person learning.

Mr. Kamras said the average of seven students per online class is unsustainable. His proposal would authorize a virtual enrollment of up to 250 students, with each teacher dealing with up to 25 students at a total cost of about $1 million a year.

“This would just scale (the program) back in away to keeping it for the long haul,” Mr. Kamras said after the hearing.

Both parents and current RPS staff members called the program invaluable in enabling students to attend school without the risk of contracting COVID-19 by attending in-person classes. Others noted that the virtual program is beneficial for students who are on long-term suspension or face health or other challenges that prevent them from physically attending classes.

The board heard from one advocate who addressed them in Spanish, which most of the board did not understand. The board was told that is the kind of situation that many students who are not fluent in English face and that the virtual academy, which offers classes in other languages, and the bilingual ambassadors help bridge that barrier.

No decisions were made. The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday, Feb. 16, for its next and potentially final review. The board could vote as early as Monday, Feb. 21, on a final plan to send to City Hall for inclusion in the 2022-23 budget package that Mayor Levar M. Stoney will present to City Council in early March.

The Kamras proposal calls for spending a record $554.4 million on public education next year, or about $24,532 for each of the 22,600 students, including the 1,100 pre-kindergarten students who are enrolled. The new budget represents a 15.5 percent increase from the current $480 million budget, or an expenditure of about $22,238 percent student.

To be fully funded, Mr. Kamras’ plan calls for the city to boost spending from $185 million to $207 million, a $22 million hike. That includes about $11.4 million RPS would need to match state funds to provide a 5 percent increase for teachers and other staff.

Board member Jonathan M. Young, 4th District, presented an alternative budget plan that would double enrollment at two specialty schools, Franklin Military Academy and Richmond Community High School, increase the number of city students able to attend area governor’s schools and beef up the teaching corps at the Career and Technical Education Center so that students could take math, science and other courses there and stay on the North Side campus longer.

Mr. Young’s proposal, among other things, calls for reducing the request for city funds to less than $10 million and would eliminate up to $12.4 million in proposed expenditures on Chromebooks and other technology.

In all, his package changes involves about $18 million in spending changes or about 3 percent of the Kamras budget plan.

His plan also calls for cutting 35 positions from the central office staff, compared with the 16 positions Mr. Kamras’ plan would eliminate.

“I think we need to shake things up,” Mr. Young has told his colleagues.