The Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) division proposed a $257 million budget for fiscal 2023-24, a 4.4% increase over last year’s budget, at a February 16 School Board work session.
Funding from local sources represents 72% of ACPS’s total budget, and that funding is up $15 million over last year—an 8.8% increase—largely due to the sharp jump in county real estate assessments, which in turn drives property tax collections by the county. Albemarle County allocates about 60% of its property tax revenues to the school division. State funding increased by $4.6 million, and there was no change in federal funding.
The schools budget proposes about $20 million in new expenditures, offset by a $10 million decrease in one-time spending from 2022-23. The largest portion of the budget increase is a 5% raise for all full-time and regular employees effective July 1 of this year, which will cost $9.5 million. This raise follows a 6% bump plus a bonus of between $750 and $1000 last year, and a 4% compensation increase for all regular employees in March of 2022.
$1.4 million will provide improvements to the division’s substitute teacher program, and $1.2 million goes toward 13 additional staff and services to support students at higher socioeconomic risk for not meeting established academic standards. These hires will work as reading specialists or as staff to reduce class size in the division’s most at-risk schools. Eleven additional Special Education positions, who will work in early childhood classrooms, provide intensive support for students with disabilities, and expand the ABASE autism program, will be funded with $1.1 million.
The division’s focus on mental health services for students will be continued after one-time pandemic funding in 2021-22 allowed the division to hire a Social Emotional Learning Coach for each school. This year’s budget funds a Mental Health Coordinator at the division level, while the 2024-25 budget and beyond will be required to cover the almost $2 million expense for the 24 coaches going forward.
The proposal includes $126,000 for salary and benefits for one School Resource Officer—a law enforcement officer who works in the schools to help administrators implement security measures and prevent crime. This marks a return of the position after the School Board voted in 2020 to remove all SRO’s from schools amid concerns that law enforcement officers made students feel uncomfortable or threatened, though a majority of students surveyed at the time said that they believed SRO’s supported students and kept schools safe.
The budgeted SRO will be assigned to the northern feeder pattern which includes Albemarle High School (AHS), the site of considerable upheaval during the 2021-22 school year. The SRO will join the school’s Safety Coach and three Security Assistants to provide supervision in the hallways and cafeteria, to defuse volatile situations, and to help students with problem-solving.
Haas said there are other measures being taken at AHS “to address what’s happening” there. The budget proposes a new Dean of Students position at AHS which will be filled by Jason Lee, who previously served as Assistant Principal at AHS for one year and Principal at Western Albemarle High School for one year before leaving to become Supervisor of Facilities, Safety, and Operations in the Charlottesville City Schools system. During a January School Board meeting, Haas described Lee’s new role as specializing in student retention.
“[Lee’s] focus will be to actually pull services into the school for students that are having the most inappropriate behaviors, focusing on restorative practices, restorative justice, and working in the realm of behavior intervention,” said Haas. “He’s not going there just as another person on staff. His role will be to work with students to make sure that they can stay at school.” Haas also talked about problems with behavior in the large student bathrooms at AHS, which he said were referred to as “gang bathrooms” (made for large groups of students) back when he was AHS principal.
“If a child doesn’t feel like they can have privacy during the day to spend time at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, then I think it’s hard for them to learn and to pay attention to what they need,” he said. “So, we are using some of our capital dollars that are recurring annually to gut those bathrooms and to install single occupancy restrooms.” Vape detectors will also be installed in bathrooms, and students caught vandalizing school property will be asked to work with custodians over the summer to repair damage.
Instructional Practices Audit
During his budget presentation, Haas was candid about the division’s failure to narrow the achievement gap. “A problem that our division faces is that we have not raised achievement levels for our students of color despite implementation of a variety of evidence-based and state-mandated programs and structures aimed to support improved outcomes for all students, [such as] professional learning communities, culturally responsive teaching, Responsive Classroom, high school redesign, phonics-based reading, instruction, and math investigations just to name a few.
“The extent to which these programs are implemented with fidelity and are impactful remains unclear,” he continued, “and so we have initiated an Instructional Practices Audit to obtain consultative services to help us better understand the following: 1) our failure to end the predictive value of race in reading and math achievement, particularly in K-5 reading and math and high school Algebra I. 2) the root cause of our achievement gap between students of color and their peers and other demographic groups in K-5 reading and math and high school Algebra I, and 3) best practices research and specific action steps for improvement that we can take as soon as possible.”
The consultant tapped for the audit is Bellwether Education Partners at a cost of $131,000 (paid out of this year’s budget), and the firm is expected to make recommendations by the end of this school year. Haas said after the meeting that the division has access to “one-time” funding through its Learning Recovery Fund of about $1.9 million. “Some of the funds will be used to support recommendations that come out of the audit and the work of our implementation team,” he said.
The title of the 2023-24 budget is “We Will Know Every Student.” Asked how the budget supports the goal in the title, Haas said, “Our educators, administrators, and support staff do an outstanding job of getting to know their students and families. Funding to keep our class sizes small, add intervention staff and reading specialists, and provide more permanent substitutes who are at the schools daily will support this important facet of each child’s education.”
County students performed at or near state averages (and declined in some areas such as reading) on recent SOL (Standards of Learning) tests, and an accreditation report in September revealed that 12 of the division’s 24 schools would have received “conditional” accreditation had they not received waivers from the state. In a press release at the time, Haas said, “I own these results. They are unacceptable and do not in any way reflect the efforts or abilities of our students, families and educators.” However, neither Haas’s budget presentation nor the nearly 300-page document itself specifically addresses how these declines will be systematically recovered for the entire student population.
“There is far more to student learning than a Standards of Learning assessment,” Haas said in a statement for the Gazette. “You have to look at the funding request in its entirety. Implementing the audit, adding reading specialists, freeing up instructional staff from substitute or security assistant duties, improvements in intervention funding, compensation increases to allow us to attract and develop the very best educators and support staff, [and an] expansion of the culturally responsive teaching program, all will impact academic excellence.”