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Reflections of federal stimulus funding in RPS

Will circumventing public process leave Richmonders in unsafe facilities for fall reopening?

by Jeannie Bowker

Richmond Public Schools is set to reopen for full in-person learning on September 8, nearly 19 months after schools closed on March 13, 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, following news of Covid-19 outbreaks and quarantines in recently opened public schools due to the Delta variant, including at the RPS charter school Patrick Henry, RPS families and staff are in a panic. When asked by school board member Kenya Gibson if RPS would consider reopening its virtual option for RPS students given that families made the choice to return to in-school learning back in the halcyon days of early summer, before Delta turned the world upside down (again), Superintendent Jason Kamras said no. As a result, thousands of students and RPS staff will be returning to school buildings desperate for renovation and with planned HVAC repairs still incomplete.

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, community stakeholders have suggested many ideas to help facilitate in-person learning that seem very prescient now. These suggestions have included focusing on repa windows, enabling outside learning or at least outside eating, and ensuring that the buildings have, at the least, working heating and air conditioning. Millions of dollars have been available from the federal government to address these facilities issues. If you drive by any number of the private schools in Richmond, you will have seen the outside tents that enable students to learn and eat outside and wonder why RPS does not have the same after 19 months of knowing that Covid-19 is airborne — and that the air in RPS buildings leaves much to be desired. In fact, staff members have reported that some buildings still do not have working air conditioning.

It is hard to know precisely where all of the millions of funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) has gone. RPS applied for three rounds of ESSER funding, twice through the 2020 Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and once through the 2021 American Rescue Plan (ARP). The School Board approved using the initial round of $13.2 million in ESSER funding from the CARES Act to cover the District’s ongoing Covid-19 responses because RPS faced a significant and imminent budget crisis due to Covid-19-related spending in the Spring of 2020. The School Board then approved a $54.6 million spending plan for the second round of ESSER Funding from the CARES Act in February 2021. At least $14 million of that $54.6 was intended to pay for a year round calendar for two years, but year round school was then not approved for this upcoming year. At least $8.5 million of the funding was meant for bipolar ionization, but after the community pleaded with the Administration not to purchase snake oil air scrubbers, the Administration purchased hospital-grade filtration units for classrooms at $6 million. The District purchased $180,000 in walk-through temperature scanners for each school, only to determine after the fact that the scanners were inaccurate, and the Administration hoped to sell off these scanners units to recoup some of the money. In sum, while all of this money may have been used on very warranted and necessary purchases, the public does not know precisely what money has gone where and if that money could go towards last minute facilities improvements and purchases to help minimize the spread of Delta this fall.

When Congress signed the 2021 ARP, more ESSER funding was designated to public schools and RPS again needed to decide what to do with this additional funding. As before, some of this money could have gone to maintaining or renovating facilities in RPS. Instead, the Administration’s August 2021 proposal divided approximately $123 million in proposed funding between $58 million to maintain the district’s earlier ESSER funding spending for one more year, from 2023 to 2034, and $65 million for a Literacy Plan. On August 2, Superintendent Kamras said that $8 million dollars of this money was going towards facility upgrades, but that allocation is not evidenced in the Administration’s presentation. He also noted that additional funding for RPS HVAC systems would be available through the State, but school board member Elizabeth Doerr indicated that she had heard through the Virginia Department of Education grapevine that RPS had missed the deadline to apply for the program funding. The Superintendent also noted that RPS would receive facility funding from Biden’s infrastructure plan, but the compromise bill allegedly does not include money for school facilities. It was clear from the Administration’s ARP ESSER proposal that RPS’s long underfunded infrastructure would — yet again — be overlooked by an “ambitious” Literacy Plan.

So on August 2, 2021, the RPS School Board voted 7–2 (For: Doerr, Young, Rizzi, Harris-Muhammad, Burke, Page, and Jones; Against: White and Gibson) to approve the Superintendent’s Stimulus Funding Proposal (dated June 28, 2021). The $65 million Literacy Plan includes $29 million for personnel, $10 million for training, $7 million for resources, and $19 million for extended day partnerships/operations. Approximately 30 percent of the Literacy Plan spending will go to third party providers, continuing this Administration’s pattern of outsourcing to third parties. Further, the plan’s broad-brush outline, coupled with RPS’s recent purchases of expensive, scripted curricula that discount local sources of student and teacher knowledge beg crucial questions, such as: Who are these external partners for whom $19M are earmarked? What is the nature of the training? What learning outcomes will be foregrounded?

Of course, addressing literacy is an important initiative, and is one part of Dreams4RPS, the Richmond Public Schools 2018–2023 Strategic Plan. The absolute merit of addressing literacy in the district is not an issue, but the process by which the Administration chose to spend this money on a Literacy Program is. The purpose of the broadened ESSER Fund of the ARP funding is to enable a local education agency (LEA) to fund a “wide variety of activity related to educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators as well as to address the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of its students’’ (see full document). However, the funding issued through the ARP’s ESSER comes with regulations published in April 2021 that must be followed when implementing plans for ESSER funds. Importantly, an LEA “must engage in meaningful consultation with stakeholders and give the public an opportunity to provide input in the development of its plan.” The meaningful consultation must engage with, “to the extent present or served by the LEA: Tribes, civil rights organizations (including disability rights organization); and stakeholders representing the interests of children with disabilities, English learners, children experiencing homelnessness, children in foster care, migratory students, children who are incarcerated, and other underserved students.”

It is not apparent that the “meaningful consultation” as described in federal regulations happened in RPS. Superintendent Kamras claimed at the August 21 board meeting that this was the third time this Literacy Plan had been brought before the school board and the third time the public had to comment on the plan. In truth, the Literacy Plan first appeared on the school board’s agenda on June 28, but the presentation was delayed until the following board meeting. The Literacy Plan was presented for a First Read on July 19 and then given a Second Read on August 2, when the plan was approved. Superintendent Kamras also stated that the application for ARP ESSER funding was due to the state on September 1, and “if we do not take action tonight, I do fear, rather significantly, we will not be in a good position to submit all the necessary paperwork” to receive the funding. Of course, these regulations for the funding were published in April 2021, giving the Administration plenty of time to have developed its proposal. It is worth noting that Chesterfield County Public Schools and Henrico County Public Schools approved spending plans for this funding in May 2021. The last minute nature of the Administration’s proposal shortened the time the public had to engage with the material and also heightened the urgency for the board to approve the proposal.

Simply posting a plan on Board Docs is not equivalent to meaningful consultation. The District did not hold any advertised public hearings or sessions on its plans for the ARP ESSER funds. It also did not provide any publicized outreach to the civil rights organizations or stakeholders required in the regulations before presenting this Literacy Plan to the school board. The RPS literacy plan is a cart before the horse proposal: the spending plan priorities should originate after meaningful consultation as defined in federal regulations, but in RPS, the Administration developed a Literacy Plan and then sought approval for the plan. When asked by School board Member Nicole Jones about whether RPS had in fact fulfilled the meaningful consultation requirement of the ARP ESSER funding, Tracy Epp, the Chief Academic Officer, responded, “I”m not fully able to speak to that.”

Instead, Tracy Epp insisted repeatedly that because literacy was one of the core components of Dreams4RPS, a strategic plan developed two years earlier, that addressing literacy with this ESSER funding was a priority that had come from the community. That is not sufficient outreach to conform with the meaningful consultation requirement of the act. The notion that Dream4RPS somehow signifies meaningful engagement with RPS’ most marginalized stakeholders to determine what these stakeholders need to return to school following Covid-19 is mind-boggling. Indeed, when questioned further by board members Kenya Gibson and Nicole Jones about fulfilling the requirement for meaningful consultation, Tracy Epp and Dr. Shadae Harris, Chief Engagement Officer, noted that the Literacy Plan had been presented to the Teacher Advisory Council (a teacher on the council watching the video on Facebook noted that was not true); the Parent Advisory Council (a parent on the council watching the video on Facebook noted that was not true); a steering committee of elementary education teachers and principals; Epp’s exceptional education team; Epp’s English Language support team; and a faith-based leadership group (that could have a conflict of interest in approving the Literacy Plan since some will be the third-party operators of services for RPS in the plan). Even assuming all of this outreach did happen, these groups are not the organizations and stakeholders identified as critical to meaningful engagement by the regulations. Further, the engagement should have happened prior to the development of and commitment to a Literacy Plan, and it should have been with the specific organizations and stakeholders rather than the Administration’s pre-approved councils and committees.

Lastly, the regulations set out by the federal government mandates that “LEA ARP ESSER be accessible, including to parents with limited English proficiency and individuals with a disability” to “ensure that all parents…are able to access and understand the information in an LEA’s ARP ESSER plan.” The agenda for board meetings is now available in Spanish on BoardDocs, the eGovernance portal for the school board, but the plan was not available in Spanish, other languages, or for individuals with a disability on Board Docs. Tracy Epp’s July 19, 2021 presentation of the Literacy Plan would have been translated simultaneously into Spanish during the meeting. Despite my best efforts, I could not and still cannot find a version of this Literacy Plan available in different languages or mediums to ensure its accessibility in order to conform with federal regulations.

What is more alarming than the RPS Administration pushing through a proposal right against its deadline to file for funding without the full and equitable “meaningful consultation” required by federal regulations is that this proposal mirrors many elements that can plague the RPS Administration when they try to put forth policies. Again, this literacy plan could be incredible and really impact the literacy issues in our district. And what’s not to like about mobile vending machines, a Lit Limo, and trade books to take home for middle and high schoolers? But it is the consistent failure to prepare proposals before deadlines; the failure to engage with the full RPS community; the failure to seek out shareholder feedback that may not be what the Administration wants to hear; the failure to account for where millions of dollars are going and when; the willingness to contract with third parties instead of developing in-house expertise; and the unwillingness to recognize critical questions and policy analysis as helpful feedback instead of attacks and negativity that should concern all of us. These failures typify the hubris of an Administration that believes it has all the answers and cannot be bothered with the inconvenience of democracy.

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Jeannie Bowker is a parent of 3 RPS students and lives in the 3rd District. She ran all over Richmond as a member of track and cross country teams in high school and college. Jeannie has an undergraduate degree from VCU, a graduate degree in Nationalism & Ethnicity (seriously), and a law degree from Northeastern University School of Law, where she focused on research and immigration law. These days, Jeannie hangs with her 3 kids, works as a due diligence analyst, and bakes when things get chaotic, which is often.

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