By Olivia Anderson | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Alexandria School Board approved its combined funds budget request for the 2023- 24 school year, which includes $359.9 million for Alexandria City Public Schools, and received an update on the proposed weapons abatement pilot at its Feb. 16 meeting.
The budget focuses on staff compensation, student learning supports and security services. It also allocates funding for the upcoming August opening of the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School and renovation of a building on North Beauregard Street to be used as a swing space for future modernization.
The grants and special projects budget totals $17,850,779, while the nutrition services budget totals $13,600,871 for both revenue and expenditures. The total also encompasses the operating budget, which is a 4.2% increase from last year’s budget.
Board member Abdel Elnoubi called the budget process collaborative and expressed appreciation and gratitude for staff, community members and parents.
“Sometimes there’s still going to be someone who feels they didn’t get what they wanted, but when we’re working within constraints and have to balance the budget, I don’t think anyone’s going to get everything they want and we’ve got to make some tough decisions. But I think we did make the right decisions and I think this is a really good budget, and I really appreciate everyone’s work on it,” he said.
Vice Chair Jacinta Greene made a motion to approve the budget request, which board member Michelle Rief seconded. The item passed unanimously. The School Board also received an update on the proposed weapons abatement pilot program, originally shared by the Office of Safety and Security Services on Feb. 2 as a way to mitigate the weapons entering city schools. That presentation yielded a spirited discussion, with the board ultimately directing staff to return with an updated proposal.
According to Chief of Facilities and Operations Alicia Hart, the general weapons abatement screening process would require everyone to walk through screening equipment upon entering the facility. Negative alerts would allow visitors to enter the facility, while positive alerts would result in a second, more thorough screening. If a weapon violation is found, no further access would be authorized and items would be confiscated.
Hart suggested the pilot take place at the city’s Alexandria City High School King Street campus and Minnie Howard campus, as well as George Washington Middle School and Francis C. Hammond Middle School.
“The rationale for selecting these locations includes the fact that the overwhelming majority of our weapons-related incidents to date have happened at the secondary school locations,” she said, adding that these particular locations are staffed with school resource officers for security support.
Affixed units would cost approximately $60,000 per unit, and mobile systems would cost approximately $13,000 per unit. Both types will likely be used at all pilot locations in order to provide flexibility based on activity use. Hart said the pilot program would be funded with CIP security funds and possible grants.
Some have argued that the equipment’s outward appearance would “change the culture of the schools,” board member Christopher Harris noted, but he countered that this would actually not be the case. There is a space in the middle of the design of the equipment for ACPS school logos, in order to blend in with the school aesthetic.
“Knowing and seeing and reading about this, the impact on that would be minimal,” Harris said.
During deliberation, board member Kelly Carmichael Booz asked how many units will be needed for the campuses. Hart said that staff is still finalizing plans, but three or four units would likely be needed at ACHS and two or three at Minnie Howard barring any changes.
Rief asked if additional personnel would be needed, particularly during high traffic events, to which Hart said the outcome of the pilot program would likely reveal that answer.
“[We’ll be] looking to see how it works once it’s actually implemented,” Hart said. “… We do think there would need to be some adjustments to our current staffing right now, not necessarily in terms of adding but maybe in positioning during arrival to be able to support this.”
Student School Board representative Torenzo Ricks pointed out that many students take classes in trailers at the ACHS King Street campus, questioning whether those students would have to go through the weapons abatement process all over again when reentering the building. Hart said students would indeed have to go through the affixed units every time they enter the building, regardless of taking classes in trailers.
“Hopefully it won’t pick up anything between going to one class or another,” Hart said. “… That’s the structure currently of our programming, that’s just the nature of people visiting and leaving and entering buildings. We just want to make sure that equipment allows us to scan throughout the day and really to be able to prevent anything that is unsolicited coming into our buildings.”
When asked how the success of the program would be measured, Hart said that staff is still “working on the parameters of what defines success.” Along with talking to neighboring school divisions, she said staff is examining whether the equipment actually reduces weapons-related incidents, whether as a deterrent or by catching weapons before they enter the buildings.
She also stated staff will look at how the pilot program impacts student arrival and the welcoming culture, which student and administrator feedback will help determine.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a program where we couldn’t have opportunities to improve it, but really using the pilot process to see, ‘Okay, how is this working? How are people getting adjusted to it? What is it that we are seeing? What is it that we are catching? Do we really feel that this would be a deterrent and a worthwhile investment across the division?” Hart said.
Stakeholders interested in sharing their thoughts are encouraged to respond to a survey opening tomorrow specifically about the pilot program. It is slated to close on March 8 and will be shared at the March 16 School Board meeting.
“We look forward to moving forward, further updates and we’ll see how this goes,” Chair Meagan Alderton said.