County schools tweak draft of book challenge policy, superintendent reiterates support for safety amid cuts

Discarded books. (File photo)

The Rockingham County School Board unveiled the latest versions of its proposed library book selection and challenge policies that walked back several key provisions on Monday.

The board, at Monday’s meeting, also considered federal funding proposals for special education and career and technical education, while Superintendent Larry Shifflett also clarified some points on the budget cuts RCPS rolled out last week.

Board chair Matt Cross was absent and vice chair Sara Horst joined remotely, so the board elected Hollie Cave to chair the meeting.

The board delayed its vote on the library policies, Horst said, because the latest draft included so many changes from the first iterations. The board consulted with its new legal counsel and read each of the 347 survey comments it received about the proposals.

Having received some questions about why the board chose to distribute a survey rather than hear input via public comment meetings, Horst said the board decided it would be most efficient to do a survey. If the public comment had been limited to the meetings, she said, those 347 responses would have lasted more than 15 hours.

Cave also assured members of the public that the delivery method didn’t mean people’s comments weren’t taken into account.

“We reviewed these comments. Every single one, we read,” Cave said. “That’s just me giving my word to you that we definitely heard you.”

Major proposed policy changes

One key policy change will ditch the new procedure the board had outlined for book complaints that don’t have to do with sexually explicit material. Instead, it will continue to use the existing policy, although with some changes to the division-level review committee’s makeup. It would now include a teacher or librarian, an assistant superintendent, the supervisor of media services and four parents, guardians or community members. It would also change the division-level committee’s review deadline from 60 business days to 90 days in general.

The revised policy also specifies that curriculum, in addition to instructional and supplemental materials, could be challenged with this procedure. Cave said these changes are an effort to streamline complaints into two main processes.

“We have a complaint for sexually explicit material, and we have a complaint form for basically anything other than that,” Cave said. “I felt like that simplified it in some way for all of us.”

Several points of concern raised among people in the surveys remain the same. The makeup of the seven-person content review committee is still weighted via a 4-3 split toward parents. A minor change makes it so the committee would have four parents or community members in general rather than requiring one of those to be on the superintendent’s parent advisory committee. According to the RCPS survey that solicited input from community members on the first renditions of these policies, many respondents requested that the makeup of the content review committee shift to include four school representatives and three parents instead of the other way around.

The revised policy proposals still require teachers to keep inventory of their classroom books and make a list available to parents within 30 days of acquiring a new book, although that’s been scaled down to just books instead of all classroom materials, like maps, news articles and other media. This was a portion of the policy that many survey respondents had taken issue with, saying it would unnecessarily add to teachers’ workloads. 

Cave said the board “never intended” to make it seem like every item would have to be cataloged.

“We never ever want any of this to be an extra burden on our teachers,” she said. “We have really edited and tried to pinpoint that language down so that you understand that you don’t have to do that.”

The policy defining supplementary materials includes a revision that would exclude “historically sacred texts of major world religions” and literary classics. 

Many public commenters have argued over the past several weeks and on the survey that based on the proposed rules, Shakespeare and the Holy Bible should also be banned because they contain explicit content.

The policy on selection criteria for library books also tacks on that the policy shouldn’t be used to discriminate. Much of the public outcry against the temporary book ban enacted in January and the forthcoming policies has centered on concerns that the board is targeting LGBTQ topics and storylines.

“Nothing in this policy shall be construed in such a manner as to discriminate against any particular viewpoint, individual, or class of individuals,” the policy states. “This policy is meant to restrict sexually explicit content in supplementary materials, regardless of sexual orientation.”

Federal funding requests

RCPS administrators offered the board two plans for federal funding requests: one for special education and one for career and technical education. The school board will vote on both at its next meeting.

The special education request totals $18.65 million, with $3.25 million in federal dollars, $5 million from the state and $10.4 million locally. 

The law requires districts to maintain or exceed its efforts toward students with disabilities, and the funding also includes personnel and staffing needs. The budget, as planned, includes funding for dozens of special-education teachers, paraprofessionals, speech therapists and more. Superintendent Larry Shifflett has said hiring more special education staff is a priority in his 2024-25 budget, which the board passed at its last meeting, but it’s unclear how many of these positions are new.

For career and technical education, RCPS will focus on professional development for teachers, updates to lab equipment and innovation to meet community needs. 

Carrie Gray, the Career and Technical Education supervisor, said while the district is meeting standards for graduation rates, work-based learning and many areas of academic performance, it’s missing the mark for special populations, like English-language learners and special education students, in science. Gray said the agricultural land lab currently under consideration by the school district would help with this.

Career and Technical Education enrollment also increased by more than 800 students from last year, although Gray said the district still needs to intentionally recruit special populations.

The Career and Technical Education budget, totaling just over $190,000, allocates about $30,000 to professional development and $44,000 to the recently embroiled Massanutten Technical Center, among other needs.

More discussion on budget cuts

Shifflett also told the board he wanted to clarify points about the district’s recently announced budget cuts. He notified division employees last Tuesday that more than 40 positions — mainly behavioral and technology support roles — would be cut or left vacant due to budget constraints while also prioritizing new SPED and school safety hires.

Shifflett said he’s received questions about the new school safety coordinator and other positions, like an athletics supervisor.

“School safety has always been a priority for me,” Shifflett said. While he doesn’t discount the work of the district’s transportation supervisor, who has taken on school-safety duties, he said the district needs a position dedicated to this priority and someone who’s had experience and a career in safety and security.

While some positions, like the school safety coordinator and school resources officers, could be funded by grants, the district has yet to learn whether it would receive that grant money. In that case, Shifflett said he had to include them in the budget.

He also echoed points from a press release, which came out late last week, saying that despite cutting a part-time counselor and eight behavior support assistants, RCPS is committed to supporting students’ mental health.

Tina Suter, an RCPS parent and kindergarten assistant, said she’s concerned about the removal of those eight behavior support assistants (BSAs) and 19 tech staff. Her school’s BSA helps her and the teachers maximize learning time for all students by supporting students exhibiting challenging behaviors.

“Having our BSA available when needed [allows] the teacher and I to focus more of our attention on the other 18 kindergarteners who are ready to learn in that moment rather than spending an unfair amount of time focused on the challenging behaviors of one student who may be struggling at the time,” Suter said.

She also said having tech support assistants maximizes class time, saving teachers from spending time troubleshooting when they could be teaching. Having spoken to other teachers about these budget cuts, Suter said, she recognizes the need to downsize but is concerned about the areas and positions RCPS has chosen to reassign or leave vacant.

“It’s considered that these BSA and tech positions have been vital to our teachers on a day-to-day basis, and they have concerns about how their classrooms will function moving forward without these important services,” Suter said.

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