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In Henrico budget work session, county and school leaders discuss academic achievement and virtual learning

In Henrico budget work session, county and school leaders discuss academic achievement and virtual learning

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Northam: For students, school is "where they need to be."

The future of virtual schooling and school achievement levels were discussed Wednesday during a joint budget work session between Henrico County government and school leaders.

“During these [budget work] sessions, I will have to sit here every year and hear about Henrico County being a world-class school system. And yet, most of the schools in eastern Henrico — we’re teetering on the edge, or we’re having accreditation struggles,” said Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson.

Nelson, whose district is in the eastern sector of the county, where more communities of color live, wants to see those schools do as well as schools in the West End, where more affluent and predominately white neighborhoods are found.

“I’m not somebody who is just going to stand up and say, ‘OK the reason that’s not going to happen is because Black kids can’t learn as well as white kids.’ Nobody’s going to say that. I don’t believe it, you don’t believe it. So, then, what are we going to do?”

Nelson said he struggles with not having any authority over the school division’s budget lines. He can question why a principal is still in charge of a lower-achieving school, but he doesn’t have the authority to have that principal fired.

“That’s my struggle for the 10 years I’ve been on the board,” Nelson said. “Some of my thoughts are, put your best folk [school administrators, teachers] in your schools where you’re struggling. Find your motivators. That’s where my hope is.”

Wednesday morning’s joint work session with the School Board comes on the heels of supervisors expressing frustration on Monday over not holding direct oversight over the county school system and School Board. While 57% of the county’s overall general fund dollars go directly to the school system, county officials cannot tell the schools how to spend the money.

Last month, the School Board sent a $665.2 million spending plan to the supervisors.

The budget anticipates providing funding for 13 additional school counselors; 10 of the positions were initially paid for with federal CARES Act money. The budget looks to restore current reductions from COVID-19, fully fund all existing positions and cover an employee health care increase.

Last week, County Manager John Vithoulkas unveiled his proposed $983.9 million general fund budget and a $224 million capital budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Board of Supervisors is spending this week going through the proposals line by line in daily marathon work sessions.

The general fund budget includes a historic salary increase for all 10,000 employees who will receive a salary increase of between 4.4% and 18% this year. The budget also does not include a single federal stimulus dollar: Those will be allotted later as one-time funds.

Some Henrico students have returned to their respective classrooms in the past few weeks. Schools Chief Amy Cashwell said Wednesday that 42% of elementary and about 30% of middle and 23% of high school students have returned to school in person.

“We are running two school divisions right now,” Cashwell said. “We are running an online, very robust school division for students who have chosen that and an in-person ... school division.”

Tuckahoe Vice Chairwoman Supervisor Pat O’Bannon asked if the school system sees a future with virtual learning as the district approaches a second academic year in the pandemic come June.

The district has built a virtual academy that will launch next fall for a limited number of students who wish to continue with virtual learning. The academy would have full-time teachers who would only teach students in virtual classrooms.

Looking ahead, Three Chopt Supervisor Tommy Branin suggested the supervisors and their school board counterparts tour their shared districts to help educate residents on the upcoming November 2022 bond referendum that looks to total about $600 million in new construction projects, including a large chunk of funding for new schools and renovations. Recently, Branin and Three Chopt School Board Chairwoman Micky Ogburn toured their district together.

jnocera@timesdispatch.com Twitter: @jessmnocera

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