The Richmond School Board on Wednesday took its first crack at tinkering with the school division’s budget for next year.
The first draft of the budget, released at the board’s Jan. 16 meeting, calls for a 3.2 percent increase in the division’s operating budget for fiscal 2019. The 3.2 percent increase would be a $9.4 million bump from the current budget.
The proposed budget totals $301.6 million and includes a 2 percent pay increase for all employees, a 4 percent health care increase and a slight decrease in the district’s Virginia Retirement System contribution.
At a budget work session on Wednesday, which lasted a little more than two hours, the board reviewed the details of the plan and asked administrators to adjust the budget, specifically as it relates to foreign languages. Wednesday’s work session was the first of five meetings in which the budget is the central focus.
The board had an impassioned discussion about resources for English as a second language instruction.
The first draft of the budget includes the hiring of 13 more ESL employees. School Board members agreed that the district needs more resources for students and parents, especially in South Side, as the city’s Latino population grows.
“We know we need more ESL teachers and support staff,” said Felicia Cosby, the board’s 6th District representative. “So let’s repurpose some dollars and fund that.”
A group of parents met with some School Board members in mid-December to ask for more bilingual resources, specifically school counselors and administrative personnel.
“We met and heard from a group that showed us that we are not leading these students on a path to success,” said Linda Owen, who represents the city’s 9th District and is one of the board members who met with the parents.
Just 2 in 5 Hispanic students graduate high school four years after entering ninth grade, according to state data; the divisionwide rate is 77 percent. More than half of Hispanic students in the district — 57 percent — drop out of school.
One School Board member is again proposing his own plan to help fund infrastructure improvements across the school division.
The plan from 4th District representative Jonathan Young calls for the school system to match up to $7 million per year from the city to fund facilities construction. Young’s plan also proposes selling consolidated school buildings and partnering with a nonprofit organization for new construction.
To fund the $7 million, Young proposed $2.3 million worth of administrative cuts through the elimination of School Board funds, along with cutting and consolidating positions and trimming expenses in the school system’s downtown administration; spending $300,000 less on Aspire Academy; using $2 million of the school division’s fund balance; consolidating four schools to save $2 million; and $376,000 in personnel cost reductions.
The four schools that Young, a critic of the facilities plan passed by the School Board in December, is calling for to be consolidated are Swansboro Elementary School, Southampton Elementary School, Woodville Elementary School and an undisclosed high school north of the James River.
“If facilities constitute a priority, then we should spend accordingly by reprioritizing dollars that were to be spent on downtown or central office administrators,” the plan reads.
Young released a similar plan in October that called for the closure of the same three elementary schools. That plan, which never got off the ground with other School Board members, called for $3.5 million in reprioritized funds for facilities, mostly through administrative cuts and transferring some Richmond Public Schools operations to the city.
Wednesday’s meeting was the board’s first since Mayor Levar Stoney proposed raising the city’s meals tax to help pay for new schools. The meals tax increase was not discussed Wednesday.
The board plans to hold three more meetings focused on the budget before it’s voted on Feb. 20. A public hearing is scheduled for next Monday. Two more work sessions are scheduled for Feb. 8 and Feb. 14 at Huguenot High School and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, respectively.