Newest APS budget adds funding for school safety and mental health support

The Arlington School Board during its April 7, 2022 meeting (via Arlington Public Schools)

Arlington Public Schools is adding funding to its proposed budget to fund positions supporting student mental health and safety.

The revised budget includes about $800,000 to add the equivalent of 5.5 full-time school safety coordinators and restore four psychologist and social worker positions, which were initially cut due to lower enrollment projections.

“I’m really glad to see our budget is paying attention to mental health, which we know is a significant concern locally and nationally,” School Board member Mary Kadera said during the School Board meeting Thursday night.

Members of the School Board unanimously approved several changes to the proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, but the budget is not yet set in stone — final approvals are slated for May.

The additional safety and mental health expenses come as many schools — particularly the middle schools — are seeing an uptick in fights and instances of students either bringing, or threatening to bring, weapons to school, as ARLnow previously reported. School administrators say they are stepping up their focus on social-emotional learning in response.

Last week week, Arlington police investigated text messages referencing potential violence at Swanson and Dorothy Hamm middle schools, but concluded there was no active or ongoing threat, Arlington County Police Department spokeswoman Ashley Savage said. The week before last, a Swanson student brought a taser to school, according to an email to families.

Additionally, in response to students filming peers in the restroom, teachers have started monitoring bathrooms and confiscating students’ phones during bathroom breaks, Fox 5 reported.

Responding to concerns from Swanson staff and parents, administrators said in a School Talk email, provided to ARLnow, that there will be increased monitoring, more mental health and social-emotional learning and improved communication with families and staff when incidents arise.

This year, APS has leaned on specialized school safety staff after removing sworn ACPD School Resource Officers from its buildings last summer.

None of the newly budgeted “school safety coordinators” will go to Swanson, but they will go to Gunston Middle School, the Langston High School Continuation Program and New Directions programs, and the newly renovated education center building that will serve Washington-Liberty High School. There will also be two substitutes.

The coordinators add to an existing 28.5 full-time-equivalent school safety staff members, who once were called “security resource assistants.” APS aims to have at least one coordinator per middle and high school building, with an additional coordinator per 500 students beyond that. Roaming coordinators support multiple elementary schools.

These staff monitor hallways, watch for student behavior during arrival and dismissal and during night time events and activities, ensure searches of students are performed correctly and conduct drills, Director of Safety, Security, Risk and Emergency Management Zach Pope said during a budget work session last month.

They are required to complete more than 60 hours of training, including compulsory minimum training through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, schools spokesman Frank Bellavia tells ARLnow.

“APS has been engaging in conversations since 2018 with Arlington County public safety agencies about the best way to adjust these positions and provide maximum level support to the safety, security and wellbeing of our communities,” he said.

The school system tweaked its budget in response to changes in enrollment and after factoring in some missed wage increases for certain staff members. This resulted in a budget increase of just under $2.5 million, after factoring in savings from APS’s scaled-back virtual alternative to in-person education. The program will only be available to students with medical and family exemptions next year.

Changes to the proposed Arlington Public Schools budget for 2022-23 (via Arlington Public Schools)

Increased pay for staff was a focus for this budget.

“We’re showing our employees that we’re investing in them, that we’re doing all we can to thank them and properly compensate them in a way that will help us to retain and recruit new staff to APS,” Superintendent Francisco Durán said during the meeting.

After making those changes, the School Board tacked funding for a few other other programs and coordinating positions. The new proposed budget is just over $749 million, and will be paid for with $150,000 from the School Board’s compensation reserves and $2.2 million from its future budgets reserves.

Additions to the proposed Arlington Public Schools budget for 2022-23 (via Arlington Public Schools)

The addition of a math supervisor comes amid a focus on math proficiency, an area that concerned administrators and parents as students transitioned back to in-person learning after learning virtually during the pandemic.

So far, students have grown in their math proficiency, according to a presentation from the March 24 School Board meeting. On average, math scores on state tests for students in grades 2-8 improved from the fall to the winter, according to data being tracked in a student performance dashboard that APS launched two weeks ago.

A snapshot from a new student progress dashboard (via Arlington Public Schools)

School Board members emphasized that the budget may change again and community members can still weigh in.

“This is only a proposed budget,” School Board Vice-Chair Reid Goldstein said. “The final budget is not going to happen for another five weeks… I urge people to still advocate — to take a look at the proposed budget that we’re doing tonight.”

A public hearing on the proposed budget is scheduled for May 5 and the School Board is slated to adopt the final budget on May 12.