Fueled by better-than-expected revenue, Albemarle County schools Superintendent Matt Haas is looking to bring back a number of spending items put on the backburner last spring at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bulk of the new spending in Haas’s $209 million funding request will go toward $7.6 million to pay employees eligible for the state retirement system at least $15 an hour and to give teachers a 3% raise and classified staff a 2% raise. Those compensation changes make up 63% of the new spending in the request, which was presented to the county School Board during a virtual meeting Thursday.
Overall, the funding request includes $12 million in new spending, as well as $4.1 million in one-time expenses, the use of which was not detailed in the budget documents. During the budget presentation, Haas said most of that money would go toward helping students recover learning lost during the last year.
The funding request is an 8% increase from the current $193.7 million operating budget, which was cut last year after the pandemic disrupted the budget process.
Haas said his funding request will help the division emerge stronger from the pandemic, citing the compensation increases, restoration of several staff positions and the planned use of one-time funding to provide summer learning experiences and potentially an extended day for students next year.
“It promotes the division’s values and our strategic goals, and it builds on experiences developed during the pandemic,” Haas said.
The division is expecting student enrollment to rebound next school year based on analysis of survey responses and local enrollment data. This year, 824 fewer K-12 students enrolled in the division’s schools; the budget is based on 838 children returning.
Last year, Haas sought to boost the minimum rate for all employees from $10.20 an hour to at least $13.50, but that plan was put on hold because of the pandemic. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is also a priority for the Board of Supervisors.
“We’ve got to have a sustainable wage,” Haas said during a media briefing before Thursday’s meeting. “I’m not going to call it the answer to everything. It’s not a magic arrow to shoot at a problem, but it’s a big step in the right direction because 18% of our employees right now make less than $15 an hour, and they are the backbone of much of what we do.”
Boosting the minimum pay rate also means adjusting higher wages further up the pay scales, which raises the price tag of the measure to $3.87 million. Haas said the other raises in the budget could be increased, depending on how the budget cycle plays out.
The raises are well-earned for a staff that stepped up during the pandemic, he said. The division scrapped planned raises for employees for the current year, including the yearly step increase. The School Board will vote soon on giving all full-time employees a $1,000 bonus and part-time workers $750.
“Not only have they been amazing in the creativity and innovation they brought to the learning experiences for students, but the dedication of the staff has made school, in the words of the health department, among the safest locations in our community,” Haas said.
Compensation and benefits make up about 85% of the expenses in the proposed budget.
The School Board will review the request over the course of three work sessions before voting on the plan March 11. Much of the request was not a surprise to board members as they’ve discussed budget priorities and the new expenses at recent meetings — a practice that started in 2019 for the current budget.
Local revenues for the division are projected to increase by about 5% while state revenues are expected to increase by 10%.
“As the result of the critical decisions the pandemic demanded, we became more efficient and resourceful in matching operational and instructional needs to fewer resources,” Haas wrote in a letter accompanying the funding request. “And a year later, as the result of better-than-expected economic results in our state and county, we are well-positioned to meet the highest expectations of our students and families and to restore greater competitive balance to our ability to recruit, develop, and support and retain exceptional employees.”
The funding request allocates $291,957 to create an in-house security program to replace the use of school resource officers and $355,880 to support a new requirement that all new teachers complete a Culturally Responsive Teaching micro-credential or earn their CRT certification within their first three years.
Those are the only new budget proposals. Historically, the division’s funding request has included a range of new programs or budget items, but the practice changed last year.
Similar to Haas’s pre-pandemic funding request, the spending plan is balanced. Last year was the first time in more than a decade that the division presented a request that didn’t have a gap between projected revenues and expenses.
If Haas’s request is adopted, it will be the first time the division’s operating budget exceeds $200 million.
The budget proposal doesn’t rely on any federal stimulus funding. The division has received $9.8 million in CARES Act money, and Haas said $6.1 million will go toward learning recovery. That, combined with a projected $4.1 million surplus, will be used for summer programs as part of a plan to help students recover learning lost during the last year.
That plan is still in the works. However, Haas said the division is considering issuing a request for proposals for community organizations to provide the summer programs.
The funding request restores 6.5 full-time positions at the department level and funds 22 new full-time jobs. Fifteen department positions were cut in the current budget.
Restoring the operational and school cuts would cost $2.63 million, according to budget documents.
That includes bringing back two full-time general classroom and school positions to reduce class sizes to pre-pandemic levels, as well as hiring five more teachers as a contingency if enrollment is higher than expected.
Because of the enrollment fluctuations, the division isn’t planning to change the staffing allocations for certain school-based positions.
To accommodate growth among students who don’t speak English as their first language and in special education enrollment, the division wants to hire 10 more teachers — five for each program.
Last year, division staff said that about 12 full-time positions were needed to address the special education enrollment growth. Five were ultimately funded.
“The increase supports both an increase in staffing for growth, as well as supporting services that are appropriately serving children in their neighborhood schools (i.e. A-BASE and B-BASE service delivery models), thereby decreasing the need for private day and residential placements,” division staff wrote in the funding request.