By Luke Anderson | [email protected]
At its first meeting of 2020, the Alexandria City School Board considered an overview of the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget and an audit of Alexandria City Public Schools’ communications department. The board also voted to reelect Cindy Anderson as chair and Veronica Nolan as vice chair, leadership positions that are up for reelection every year.
Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., presented a full overview of his proposed FY2021 budget to the board. Of the total proposed $324.7 million, Hutchings focused primarily on the operating fund, which makes up about 92 percent of the budget. The remaining funds go to school nutrition at 3 percent and grants and special projects at 5 percent.
The proposed FY2021 operating budget is $299,078,231, according to an ACPS presentation. In June 2019, the school board approved an operating budget of $286,415,016 for FY2020. The FY2021 proposal is $12,663,215, or 4.4 percent, more than the approved FY2020 budget.
“This year, we really wanted to kind of approach our budget priorities in a very different manner and we started using our data and allowing our data to really drive our decision making so that we are very specific in regards to what those budget priorities are for the FY 2021 combined funds budget,” Hutchings said.
One of Hutchings’ budget priorities is to allocate funding for competitive salaries and benefits that will attract and keep employees. The extra money will also help offset the rising costs of healthcare and the Virginia Retirement System. Another priority is expanding employee training in areas such as cultural competency and active shooter situations.
Assessing and helping disadvantaged students is also high on the list. The proposed budget has money set aside for continued translation services, especially for Alexandria’s Amharic-speaking community. Hutchings said that outreach to Hispanic families will hopefully improve graduation rates and chronic absenteeism, as the majority of students who drop out are Hispanic males.
(Read more: School board approves 10-year plan)
School counseling is also a budgetary priority, since meeting the emotional needs of students is directly related to attendance and performance, according to Hutchings. This year, a program called Social, Emotional and Academic Learning was incorporated into three Alexandria elementary schools: Cora Kelly, Mt. Vernon and Ferdinand T. Day.
Examples of SEAL include a mood meter and in-class discussions surrounding emotions and trauma. Christine Scherrer, a teacher at Cora Kelly who has used SEAL in her classroom this year, gave an example of a quiet, positive student expressing negative emotions. The student later opened up to Scherrer and told her of trouble at home, which may not have happened without SEAL. The proposed FY2021 budget will allow the pilot to expand to three additional schools next year.
The school board will further discuss the FY2021 budget at two school board work sessions later this month. City council, which will determine the amount of city funding ACPS will receive, is slated to begin its budget process in February.
Also at the meeting, Betsy Overkamp-Smith, CEO of BetsyOS PR LLC, presented findings of her firm’s audit of the ACPS Office of Communications to the board. The audit evaluated the department’s marketing and branding, internal communications and communications with parents and families and in times of crisis.
Overkamp-Smith’s team noted the communication department’s professionalism and commitment, as well as several departmental achievements. However, based on interviews, focus groups and surveys, they found that the department is perceived as difficult to work with. Overkamp-Smith provided a number of recommendations to help combat this issue.
One of the most urgent priorities Overkamp-Smith recommended was an overhaul of the ACPS website.
“A number of stakeholders, internal and external, noted the usability of the website as an area of needed improvement,” Overkamp-Smith said.
Last summer, a full-time communication specialist was hired to help enhance the functionality of the site. Overkamp-Smith said that the website currently meets accessibility standards, but she emphasized that this must be maintained.
Many of the communications department’s full-time employees are not being used as effectively they could be, Overkamp-Smith said. She suggested a time study to determine how employees work and manage time. Data would be collected to show what and how often factors prevent employees from performing certain duties. The study would also help determine interdepartmental areas for improvement.
Other recommendations included increasing some part-time jobs to full-time, redistributing some of the receptionist’s responsibilities and hiring an assistant director or senior communications coordinator.
Overkamp-Smith applauded Hutchings’ plan to combine the Office of Communications and the Office of School Business and Community Partnerships, and she suggested translation services be placed under that department as well.
Regarding internal communications within the department, Overkamp-Smith suggested there was room for improvement.
“We found that staff spend significant time redoing or substantially revising communications materials,” Overkamp-Smith said. “While this may be required occasionally, miscommunication and a lack of process has created an environment where this occurs regularly.”
As a solution, she recommended implementing a project management system to facilitate communication between staff members and track the completion of requests.
This would put employees on the same page too, decreasing the amount of duplicate work performed and allowing staff additional time to maintain connections. During the audit, the department lost several opportunities to connect with schools due to the staff’s unavailability.
“Given the significant job responsibilities of a limited number of staff, one way to address this issue and to potentially provide better customer service is to utilize a beat system similar to the way media cover a community’s news,” Overkamp-Smith said.
The beat system would designate certain staff members as points of contact for specific schools. For example, one staff member would be assigned to T.C. Williams, due to its size, while other staff members would be in contact with other schools based on size and support requirements.
According to Overkamp-Smith, customer service is also hindered due to the current routing process for incoming phone calls, most of which relate to human resources, student services, records and transportation. Overkamp-Smith suggested creating a portal to deal with complaints and requests, similar to the city’s Call.Click.Connect.
Board member Christopher Suarez supported the suggestion and requested that the customer service portal be expedited. Hutchings said that the portal is in the operating budget for FY2021.
(Read more: School board may reduce size)