Coronavirus shuts down schools for the rest of spring and creates ‘grounds for concern’ about Hburg district’s budget

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

As COVID-19’s disruption to schools escalated Monday with statewide closures for the rest of spring, Harrisonburg school officials dealt with the fallout while also making final preparations to present the district’s 2021 budget to the city council tonight. 

But COVID-19’s economic effects of businesses closing or cutting back services could also affect the school district’s request for a 4% increase in funding from the city council, School Board Chair Andy Kohen told The Citizen in an email Monday.  

“There are grounds for concern about Council approving the budget,” Kohen said, in light of the “inevitable decline” in sales tax and restaurant meals tax revenue to the city, as college students leave Harrisonburg and restaurants close their doors.

It’s one of myriad ways the response to COVID-19 has sharply changed the present and future of Harrisonburg in only a few weeks. 

The ripple effects continued Monday. Gov. Ralph Northam announced that public and private schools in Virginia will close for the remainder of the academic year.

Superintendent Michael Richards wrote to Harrisonburg families, saying school leaders “have been preparing to make potential adjustments to our at-home learning in the event of a prolonged closure,” and that more information would come out in the following days.

Volunteers and school staff have been handing out bagged lunches to students and their families.

The bagged meal and Mobile Cafe programs will continue to provide food for Harrisonburg children under age 18. A meal schedule and pickup information are available on the district’s website.

Richards also said Virginia is applying for a waiver to cancel the SOLs, or Standards of Learning tests, which measure the Commonwealth’s expectations for each student’s annual progress. Other states also have applied for similar waivers to skip the annual statewide exams. 

“On Friday the U.S. Department of Education indicated that all waivers will be approved,” he wrote.

Many students are also concerned about graduation — and what comes after. Richards wrote that the Virginia Department of Education is still sorting out the details for graduation requirements, but “the State is determined to help seniors graduate despite the interruption.”

School budget: employees raises and how to pay for them

According to a presentation Richards gave to the school board in Thursday’s meeting, the district is requesting $37.2 million from the city. That amounts to 42% of the district’s total $88.5 million proposed budget with the rest coming from the state and federal governments. The request to the city would represent a 4% increase from last year’s $35.8 million.

“We are in uncharted waters related to our fiscal outlook,” City Manager Eric Campbell wrote The Citizen in an email. “Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting our revenue forecast for the current fiscal year, as well as, next fiscal year. It is too early to determine the impact at his point.”

The district’s proposed budget includes salary increases for all Harrisonburg City Public School employees. If accepted by the city, school nutrition assistants will see a raise of 7.5%. All other employees would get a 3% raise.

School nutrition employees “are our lowest paid classification by far,” said Tracy Shaver, executive director of finance, during Thursday’s school board meeting in which the board approved the budget proposal.

Kohen wrote that he was happy to see the school nutrition raise, which he said wouldn’t solve the pay imbalance but will help “rectify some of the inequity in the existing pay scale structure.” 

“It is crucial to recognize that more than three quarters of all HCPS expenditures are on people and that equity is at the top of the list of core beliefs of HCPS,” he said. 

Richards, the superintendent, told The Citizen in an email that the raise for school nutrition employees is part of his plan to improve “pay parity” for employees.

“I want to establish an empirical, data-driven salary and wage system. The system I inherited is too random,” Richards wrote. “I intend to engage in a systematic review of all employee groups in an effort to determine whether we have internal and external parity.” 

External parity, Richards said, takes into account regional studies about how similar positions are compensated in other organizations and the private sector.

Richards also included 10 additional high school positions in the budget, to “front load” staffing needs for the new high school. But those additional employees, including an assistant principal, two English Second Language teachers, and a STEM teacher, will begin working at Harrisonburg High School until the new one is complete.

“The positions are needed now to keep up with student enrollment growth in order to keep class sizes reasonable and will transfer over to the new school when it opens,” Richards wrote.

Kohen said in Thursday’s meeting that previous studies conducted in the district indicate high school staffing needs will increase by 10-15% when the new school opens.

The total $88.5 million proposed budget is a 6% increase from the previous budget of $83.5 million. Roughly $3.6 million of the additional $5 million would go toward instructional costs – much of it to pay for the additional high school positions. 

Another factor racking up instructional expenses is Richards’ initiative called The World Is My Classroom, which “connects teachers and students to relevant, authentic teaching and learning resources such as professional authors, NASA, student-led academic conferences, fine arts events, and more,” he wrote. 

The initiative, which launched in the fall, has brought award-winning authors like Kwame Alexander to visit Harrisonburg schools.

City council’s meeting proceeds but public urged to view remotely

The city council will allow public attendees at their meeting tonight, but are strongly encouraging interested residents to participate from home. The meeting can be watched on WHSV-TV channel three and the city’s Facebook page and website. Residents can still speak during the public comment portion of the agenda by calling in to the meeting live at 540-437-2687.

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