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Richmond Approves Teacher Raises, Defers on Year-Round School

People in board room
A 2019 meeting of the Richmond School Board. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Nearly six hours into its weekly work session, the Richmond School Board voted unanimously to approve parts of Superintendent Jason Kamras’ proposed budget for the 2021-2022 school year.

Board members only approved budget items that would be covered by recurring funding from the state and city governments. This amounts to about $9.8 million to give all employees both a permanent 2% raise and an annual 1.17% step increase, cover a rise in employees’ healthcare costs and pay for tuition for regional schools and other state programs.

The board voted Tuesday for part of the budget in order to meet a Feb. 19 deadline by which RPS must request the $9.8 million from the city and state. Now, Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council will consider the school board’s requests as part of Stoney’s citywide budget proposal.

Kamras says RPS will likely receive “just shy of $10 million” in new revenue from the city and state, though Stoney has indicated  Richmond faces a significant funding deficit due to the pandemic, potentially as high as $15 million.

“Like so many localities, Richmond is feeling the serious economic effects of the pandemic. This budget season, we’ll be forced to make tough decisions and do more with less.” Stoney said during his State of the City address last week.

The school board’s final budget is expected to be adopted in June.

The vote did not concern budget items that would be covered by about $55 million of federal stimulus funding. This means some of the more noteworthy items, such as Kamras’ year-round calendar proposal, matters of custodial staffing and COVID-19-related facility upgrades, are still up for debate.

For the first time, Kamras presented a draft calendar to the school board Tuesday, which illustrated an updated year-round proposal. It would feature a fully in-person opening next August, while giving families the option to start the year virtually. It would also offer seven weeks of additional instruction to 5,000 high-need students: three in the July and August before the school year, two in November and two in March.

“The reality of virtual instruction is that it is imperfect, and we know from data not just here in Virginia but around the country that learning loss is likely to be significant. And so, as a response, one of the things we are proposing is additional time for instruction,” Kamras said. His proposal is for this calendar to be implemented through the 2022-2023 school year.

In addition, Kamras’ updated proposal would offer a five-week long summer break to students who participate in the extra days of class and a two-month long summer break to all other students. Summer breaks at RPS typically run for 12 weeks.

The proposed calendar would observe all traditional and religious holidays, including Easter Monday, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali and Yom Kippur, “given the increasing religious diversity of our families and our staff.”

Kamras addressed the controversy around his calendar proposal, which has become one of the biggest points of contention between school board members and among members of the community.

“I do want to honor that and recognize that there are people of goodwill who feel very differently about how to proceed on these issues, so I do want to just share that I welcome the robust discussion and receive it all with generosity of spirit,” he said before his presentation.

While some expressed support for the adjusted calendar, such as Boardmember Jonathan Young, others showed significant concern. As soon as the Tuesday meeting began, Boardmember Shonda Harris-Muhammed called for Kamras’ presentation of the year-round calendar proposal to be removed from the meeting’s agenda. 

Harris-Muhammed called the proposal a “deflection” and a “distraction” that sidetracked more pressing conversations about general reopening plans.

“We do not have a plan to reopen schools at any point,” she said. “This is not the time to create or discuss a year-round calendar when we have yet to create and present and implement reopening schools plans for our community. That takes precedent.”

Several members agreed that RPS is not placing enough attention on how to reopen, including Mariah White, Nicole Jones and Stephanie Rizzi, who said it feels like the board and Kamras are “jumping from budget to reopening to year-round school.”

Kamras asked for his presentation to be kept on the agenda, as it was only meant to promote a discussion, and a vote was not scheduled. Kamras also emphasized that he sees his year-round proposal and reopening discussions as one in the same. Board members agreed to hold the discussion in a 5-3 vote, with White, Rizzi and Harris-Muhammed rejecting his presentation.