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Former ABSS board chairman: Alamance Virtual School was never intended to be temporary response to pandemic

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Former chairman Allison Gant contradicts Superintendent’s assertion that school was always intended to be temporary

The Alamance Virtual School (AVS) originally opened at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year and is based at Sellars-Gunn Education Center, which had served as the alternative school for the Alamance-Burlington school system.

School board members heard from more than two dozen speakers Monday night, pleading with them not to close the virtual school (see related story, this edition).

ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler last week recommended closing the virtual school as part of a broader effort to plug a projected $3.2 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

Yet the superintendent’s recommendation to close the virtual school, if ultimately approved by the school board, wouldn’t take effect until this summer and wouldn’t have any impact on the projected budget deficit for the current fiscal year.

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Announced in March 2021, the Alamance Virtual School was established following an historic decline in enrollment in ABSS, amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the time, total enrollment in ABSS schools had declined by 1,109 students, from 22,851 students during the 2019-20 school year to 21,742 student for the 2020-21 school year – representing a 5 percent decline from the previous year and the lowest overall enrollment recorded by ABSS in 15 years.

The school system’s overall enrollment has slowly rebounded – to 22,216 students at the end of the first month of the current 2023-24 school year – but has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels, based on the school system’s enrollment reports.

 

Board never mentioned closing AVS once stimulus funding expired

However, there had never been any previous discussion by the school board or ABSS administration about operating the Alamance Virtual School temporarily, two-term former school board member and former board chairman Allison Gant recalled during the public comments portion of the school board’s regular “business” meeting Monday night.

Nor was there any discussion that the virtual school would close once the remaining portion of the $83 million that ABSS received in federal Covid-19 stimulus funding expires on September 30 of this year, Gant insisted.

“Nor when [it was] established were parents or teachers ever told it was a temporary school,” Gant recalled, which current school board member Ryan Bowden echoed later Monday night.

“Only in the last [few] weeks,” Gant said, “has anyone heard this narrative.”

The former school board member acknowledged this week that ABSS had initially used federal stimulus money to fund the first year of operations for the virtual school, “because the application to enroll [at AVS] didn’t close until after the district had to make staffing allocations for 2021-22,” and it would’ve been too disruptive to reassign existing employees from traditional schools to the virtual school in May or June of that year.

 

Superintendent’s changing position on Virtual School:

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 22 EMAIL TO STAFF:

“This school was originally designed as a response to Covid-19 using [federal stimulus] funds, which meant it was supposed to end when these funds expire in 2024.”

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 26 AT SCHOOL BOARD MEETING:

“I’ve been trying to balance this budget for months now. I put the cart before the horse, and I put a message out there to my board that morning, and then the public, that the virtual school could be the last piece, and that was wrong.”

“The understanding was ABSS would adjust staffing at the traditional schools for year two because it would have true enrollment data [for the virtual school] and proper time for the other schools to adjust,” Gant added.  “The funding was to follow the students after the initial staffing…It was never, ever a response to the pandemic as [stated in the memo that Butler sent to staff last Thursday, announcing his intention to recommend closure of the virtual school].”

In the memo he issued last Thursday morning, Butler wrote, “This school was originally designed as a response to Covid-19 using [federal stimulus] funds, which meant it was supposed to end when these funds expire in 2024.”

 

Steadily declining enrollment at virtual school

Meanwhile, AVS has experienced a consistent decline in enrollment following the first year of operation.

AVS had 479 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade during its first year of operation, at the end of the first month of the 2021-22 school year, according to enrollment data from ABSS.

For the second year of operation, there were 339 students in kindergarten through 12th grade enrolled at AVS at the end of the first month of the 2022-23 school year, representing a decline of 140 students (29 percent) from the first year of operating the virtual school.

Prior to the beginning of the current school year (and the third year of operating the virtual school), ABSS eliminated grades K-3 at AVS, impacting approximately 51 students in kindergarten through third grade who had been enrolled in the virtual school during the previous, 2022-23 school year.

There were 236 students enrolled at AVS at the end of the first month of the 2023-24 school year, representing a decline of 103 students (30 percent) from the previous school year, according to ABSS enrollment data.

Butler’s memo stated that the principal, Rebecca Marsh (who is the wife of school board member Chuck Marsh and was appointed as the principal of AVS prior to the beginning of the 2023-24 school year), would be reassigned to a vacant principal’s position this coming summer, and other staff at the virtual school would be reassigned to other vacant positions at traditional ABSS schools.

AVS currently has approximately 31 teachers, plus the principal, about eight student support services staff, and office assistants.

Later Monday night, school board member Seneca Rogers asked the school system’s administration how much it costs per year to operate AVS; they couldn’t give an exact figure.

Rogers and his fellow board members signaled their desire later Monday night to find the funding necessary to continue operating the virtual school.

For his part, Butler apologized for the anxiety that he had created by announcing, in his memo, his intention to recommend closing the virtual school at the end of this school year.

“I’ve been trying to balance this budget for months now,” Butler said Monday night.  “I put the cart before the horse, and I put a message out there to my board that morning, and then the public, that the virtual school could be the last piece, and that was wrong.

“I’m glad you all came tonight because we needed to hear from [you],” Butler said, referring to the more than two dozen speakers, including several sixth-grade students, who pressed the board and administration to keep the virtual school open.  “I want to keep that too – I want to keep everything – and we’ve got to find a way to put that in our budget for 24-25…that’s a priority now, and I think this board is supportive of that.”

 

Other options

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Instruction operates two statewide online options for K-12 students: the North Carolina Cyber Academy and the N.C. Virtual Public School.

The N.C. Virtual Public School  (NCVPS) started in 2007 and offers multiple types of curriculum, including: the state’s standard course of study; occupational course of study; math intervention; middle school; and curriculum tailored to English language learners (ELL students).

The NCVPS also appears to offer coursework à la carte, as the state’s virtual public school reported 31,609 “unique enrollments” and 52,820 “course enrollments” during the 2022-23 school year.

ABSS was listed as one of its “top-enrolling” districts in 2022-23, with 670 enrollments last year, though the N.C. Virtual Public School doesn’t specify whether that figure represents duplicated or unduplicated headcounts.  (The NCVPS is separate from the N.C. Virtual Academy, a tuition-based online school for K-12 students operated by a publicly-traded company called Stride, Inc.)

By comparison, the N.C. Cyber Academy (NCCA) is a public charter school for K-12 students that also operates under the umbrella of the State Board of Education, and like the NCVPS, uses a lottery-based system to enroll new students.

There were 1,413 students on the waitlist for the NCCA, according to the school, which operates as a separate school district and has its own superintendent, board of directors, administration, and teaching staff.  The NCCA does not give a breakdown of enrollment by county.


Read comments of other speakers who expressed concerns about, opposition to, closing the virtual school: https://alamancenews.com/supt-announces-plan-to-close-virtual-school-students-parents-teachers-turn-out-to-protest/

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