With about $4 million in savings from the current fiscal year, Albemarle County Public Schools wants to update classroom technology and upgrade school security systems.
Those projects were among the division’s capital needs identified in 2019, but neither was funded in the county government’s five-year capital improvement program.
The division started the current fiscal year with about $9.6 million in its fund balance. The balance is much larger than usual because of steps taken at the beginning of the pandemic to curb expenses and cut other costs.
“At that point in time we expected significant declines in revenues, both state and local,” said Jackson Zimmerman, the division’s finance officer. “But as the year progressed, those reductions in revenues did not take place at all, so we’ve finished the 19-20 fiscal year in an extremely positive financial position.”
The division is also using part of its fund balance in the current fiscal year to give employees bonuses. The bonuses cost about $2.7 million. An additional $5 million in mostly state revenue that was not expected helped to boost the fund balance.
The School Board supported using $4 million from its year-end balance to pay for the capital projects and will vote on the plan at its April 22 meeting.
“Both of these projects are projects that we identified as being important in previous years that we have not been able to fund,” board member Kate Acuff said last week. “I think directing some of the revenue that we do have to catch us up on the capital projects, I would be in favor of both projects.”
About $2.5 million of the balance would go toward the first phase of replacing display technology in the division’s classrooms. About half out of the division’s 1,128 classrooms do not have a display board available and 35% have technology that’s more than 10 years old, according to division data.
“The message we hear consistently from teachers and principals is the need for modern display technology,” said Christine Diggs, the division’s chief technology officer, at a recent School Board meeting.
Diggs said the disparity in technology is an equity issue.
“There’s a need within every school,” she said. “… In schools that have had some remodeling done or an addition put in have the new boards, and then the other classrooms don’t.”
In the first phase, Diggs said the division could install a new interactive display board in every learning space in the elementary and middle schools. Those boards have a lifespan of about 10 years.
Historically, the division has not had a replacement plan for the displays, which has compounded the need. In 2019, the School Board requested an $8.2 million increase to the technology replacement fund in the county’s five-year CIP, which was not granted.
“The level of funding for all of our technology programs has not increased to keep pace with the increases that we’ve seen in enrollment, services, student to device ratios, and equipment costs,” Diggs said. “In particular, there has been no funding for display technology replacement.”
The rest of the $4 million would go to proposed security upgrades, including a buzz-in camera system at the front entrance of each school as well as electronic access badge systems.
In 2019, the division’s long range planning advisory committee ranked the school safety improvements as the top capital project.
In recent years, the division has worked to adjust the front entrances at each school in order to prevent visitors from being able to bypass the main office. With those changes in place, the division can move on to the next layer of security — the buzz-in camera system, which would cost $209,000.
The system would give an employee in the main office electronic control of the door.
Lindsay Snoddy, the division’s deputy director of building services, said that adding the buzz-in system would bring Albemarle County into alignment with school security industry standards and practices at surrounding school divisions.
The other update — electronic access badges — would cost $1.35 million. Woodbrook Elementary has already piloted the use of the badges and the system to support them, which was expanded to other schools through a state grant.
“[The system] makes it easier for staff to access the building from the playground and outside learning areas,” Snoddy said. “If a staff member loses a card, we can quickly and easily deactivate it as opposed to somebody losing a key.”
The system also keeps detailed logs of who accesses a building and when as allows administrators to change access privileges, among other benefits.
Overall, the new security systems cost $1.56 million.