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Supt. announces plan to close virtual school; students, parents, teachers turn out to protest

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Emotions were running high Monday among the crowd inside the Alamance-Burlington school board’s meeting room, which overflowed its capacity, as dozens of speakers, including several elementary school-age students, pleaded with the board to keep the Alamance Virtual School (AVS) open.

The Alamance Virtual School (AVS) currently offers online instruction that follows North Carolina’s Standard Course of Study for ABSS students in grades four through 12, ABSS officials confirmed this week for The Alamance News.

Classes and small group discussions are conducted entirely online, in real time, using computer conferencing software similar to the Zoom computer platform that was used for online, “virtual” instruction that was used in ABSS at the height of the pandemic, between March 2020 and 2021.  AVS students have to come on site, to Sellars-Gunn, where the school principal and other administrators are based, to take tests, as well as End-of-Grade and End-of-Course exams.

The 236 students enrolled at AVS for the current school year represent about 10 percent of the school system’s overall enrollment of 22,216 students as of the last day of the first month of the 2023-24 school year, based on enrollment figures from ABSS.

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School board members held two public comments periods Monday night, drawing more than three dozen speakers who weighed in on the school system’s funding crisis for a total of almost three hours.

The first public hearing, which preceded their regular monthly business meeting, was intended to hear feedback on the school system’s county budget request for the upcoming 2024-25 fiscal year, and drew 11 speakers, with many pleading for the board to keep the virtual school open.

The second public comment period, during the board’s regular monthly “business” meeting, drew approximately 27 speakers, many of whom also pleaded with the board to “save” the virtual school from the budget axe.

Numerous speakers – several of whom pointed out that AVS had already started course registration for the upcoming school year – expressed confusion about why ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler has recommended closing the Alamance Virtual School (AVS), in a memo he issued to staff last Thursday, in order to plug a projected $3.2 million budget hole for the current fiscal year.


Former school board chairman says Alamance Virtual School never intended to be “temporary,” contradicting key statement of supt. Dr. Dain Butler: https://alamancenews.com/former-abss-board-chairman-virtual-school-was-never-intended-to-be-temporary-response-to-pandemic/


“Many parents do need to work jobs, and their children may not feel safe in the [school] building,” said AVS student Mateo Rosa, who was among more than a dozen students who asked the school board to find a way to keep the virtual school open.  “They may not feel comfortable around other children,” Rosa said. “I think the virtual school helps with all of this; this is a great alternative.”

AVS student Bristol Spargo recalled, choking back tears, how she’d been bullied at Highland Elementary School until she enrolled at the virtual school.

“I was insulted, belittled, and degraded at Highland,” Spargo told the board.  “[Other students] made me hate myself even more.  I was no longer safe alone; my thoughts deteriorated to the darkest view I had of myself.  When I heard the news of AVS possibly shutting down, my [mind] immediately wandered to the bullying.  I was also questioning why people would want me to go into these environments that remain toxic – classmates that destroyed me and the joyful little girl I was.  For you to shut down this school because it is Covid-based is far from the truth.”

AVS student Xzavia Anderson told the board that her own mental health had improved since enrolling in the virtual school.  “I really don’t understand why you guys would close a school that has helped so many people,” she said.  “Please think about what you would be doing to all those kids who would be going back to an unsafe environment.  I am asking you to please save our school and add our school to your budget, because we are worth it.”

AVS sixth-grader Lillith Stewart told the board, “Alamance Virtual School has changed my life; I no longer cry every day on my way to and from school.  AVS has rescued me from being bullied and picked on.  I can learn peacefully; I can get help from my teachers [that] I didn’t get in a building.  Most of all, I don’t stay sick anymore; I’m a healthy, happy student that loves school.  We are more than just kids, we are friends and family; don’t tear our school family apart, please.”

AVS sixth-grader Gabriel Strickland also described the virtual school as not just a school but a home.  “Every time I close my computer, I’m sad that school has ended.  [It] has given me a sense of purpose and hope.  AVS is not just a place of learning; it’s a place where dreams come true.”

 

Shock, anger, and depression at AVS

James (“Jamie”) Coble, a high school science teacher for the virtual school, described for the board what it had been like for AVS students and staff to learn (from the memo that Butler emailed last Thursday) that their school might be shut down.

“We were all shocked,” Coble told the board Monday night.  “On that morning, there were 236 AVS students crying; they were angry – high anxiety, depression.  They were worried about their future.  Conversations with students on that day included one student [who’s] afraid of bringing Covid or other illnesses to her unwell dad.  She told me, ‘I don’t want to kill my daddy.’

“Many students expressed their fear of going back to school, being bullied, judged, criticized – all leading to suicidal thoughts, more emotional damage,” Coble said.  “Please do not minimize their concerns.  Is that the ABSS way of being ‘student-centered’?

“AVS offers a safe environment where teachers and students have the privilege of entering into each [others’] homes, where we are together,” Coble said.  “On that Thursday morning, they needed us; there are no walls between teachers and students.  If that’s not connecting, not building a relationship, not student-centered – I don’t know what is.  I am here to ask you not to destroy a school but rather fund the school, where you know students are excelling.”

School board member Ryan Bowden asked during a subsequent discussion, “Were parents notified at the beginning of the school year that the school would be up for closure?”

Bowden’s question drew a loud, “NO!” from the packed audience.

“I was on this board in 2021 when we voted for this virtual school,” Bowden recalled, “and it was not a temporary solution.”

ABSS chief academic officer Revonda Johnson responded, “I do remember us wanting [to] sustain it.  By opening Alamance Virtual School, it was an option that allowed us to meet the needs of kids…ABSS was not the only district to do this.”

Then-deputy superintendent Dr. Angela Bost had told the board in March 2021 that opening the virtual school would have a “minimal impact [on funding] because of the formulas that are used to allocate money to schools.”  “That will be flushed out at allotment time,” Bost said at the time, referring to the annual budget process in which the Department of Public Instruction sets funding levels for N.C. public school systems, following approval of a biennial budget by the General Assembly and governor.

 

‘The books are closed’

Butler had said in the memo he issued last Thursday morning that ABSS – with assistance from state legislators and officials in the state Department of Public Instruction – had identified $4.6 million in federal stimulus funding that could be used to sustain programs and avoid a possible reduction-in-force until the current fiscal year ends on June 30.

However, Johnson revised down the amount of expenses, to about $2.7 million, that can be retroactively “re-coded” in that portion of the school system’s budget for the previous and current fiscal years.

The school system’s administrators had been told earlier this month that they could “re-code” certain expenditures for the previous 2022-23 fiscal year and the current 2023-24 fiscal year to a portion of the budget that comes from remaining stimulus funding, based on email exchanges subsequently obtained by The Alamance News.

Johnson also pointed out that ABSS currently has approximately 69 employees whose salaries are not funded by the state.    “ABSS has not been wrong for adding additional people,” she said.  “The problem is the funding from the state does not support that.”

She also recalled that, during a joint meeting with Alamance County’s state legislative delegation and the county commissioners on February 7, “it was asked again about using ESSER funds” to balance the budget.  In the past, she said, that request had been denied because ABSS had not met a federal mandate to use at least 20 percent of its Covid-19 stimulus funding to address students’ learning loss, but a federal programs representative at the state Department of Public Instruction initially thought ABSS could “recode” certain expenses to that portion of the budget.

But Monday night, Johnson told the board that she’d consulted earlier in the day with the N.C. Association of School Business Officials (NCASBO, the state’s public school finance organization), and learned there’s no way to retroactively go back and apply expenses for staff at the virtual school – or any other personnel expenses – to the federal portion of the 2022-23 budget.

ABSS had received approximately $83 million in federal Covid-19 relief funding from three stimulus packages passed by Congress between March 2020 and March 2021: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed in March 2020 and expired on September 30, 2021; the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER II) package, which Congress passed in December 2020 and expired September 30, 2023; and ESSER III, which Congress passed in March 2021 and expires on September 30, 2024.

“We’ve learned that because the books are closed, we are not allowed to move staff from 22-23 back into it, because there’s no reimbursement,” Johnson said.  “So even though the federal [education officer in the state Department of Public Instruction] gave us that permission, he doesn’t work for that office, so we can’t do 22-23.  What we did get permission to do is to go ahead and move the salaries for 23-24 into [the fund], which would be an estimated $2.7 million [in] salaries.

“The virtual school was meant to be a part of our school system.  The infrastructure was put there.  I understand the funding issue we’re in, but just thinking about the virtual school and the uniqueness, that’s something I want to see in our budget as part of our priorities.”

– ABSS school board member Seneca Rogers

“This is the weeds of finance,” Johnson added, stressing that, as chief academic officer, school finance regulations are well beyond her area of expertise.

After Johnson gave her overview of the allowable uses of ESSER funds, school board member Dan Ingle told the audience, “I apologize to every student, every parent, every teacher.  This board had knowledge of that letter [Butler’s memo] that went out to you.”

School board member Seneca Rogers added, “The virtual school was meant to be a part of our school system.  The infrastructure was put there.  I understand the funding issue we’re in, but just thinking about the virtual school and the uniqueness, that’s something I want to see in our budget as part of our priorities.”

School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves said later Monday night, “I think it’s probably safe, if it’s the consensus of the board, [to] find the funding to sustain the virtual school.”

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