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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Alachua school district approves this year’s budget increase, HyFlex frustrations continue

It was an emotional and action-packed Tuesday night as discussions in the district office board room discussed concerns ranging from budget to teacher morale.

The School Board of Alachua County approved the 2020-2021 school year’s budget, which is more than $537 million, an increase of over $100 million from last year. Board members also prohibited masks with valves in the school district and established procedures for renaming schools with racist or sexist namesakes.

However, a large chunk of the meeting, which was riddled with technical difficulties and lasted over four hours, was consumed by concerns about learning options.

Decreasing student numbers impact the budget, said Alex Rella, Alachua County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for business services.

About 2,000 students, or about 8% of students enrolled in each of ACPS’ three learning options available this semester, switched over throughout the first two weeks of schools to Alachua eSchool, which is a fully online learning model.

The district receives less money for each eSchool student, Rella said, because of different allocations for in-person students and digital students.

The issue was part of the months-long debate of reopenings schools because state leaders threatened to cut local school districts’ funding if they didn’t reopen their doors. The case on the issue is currently in the appeals court in Florida after the state appealed the circuit court’s ruling that schools did not have to open brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Rella noted that the school district has plans and recommendations for its budget if lower enrollment continues but didn’t specify further.

“This could potentially be a financial emergency on top of the health emergency and all the other basketballs that get thrown at us,” Rella said.

About 400 to 500 fewer students started kindergarten this school year, said ACPS Superintendent Karen Clarke.

She said there is no way to know if these students are waiting to start until 2021 depending on cutoffs related to birth dates.

The new renaming policy outlines rules for reviewing ACPS facilities and district buildings that honor people who supported slavery or disadvantaged women or minorities, Clarke said.

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This policy comes after the school district approved renaming the former J.J Finley Elementary School after renowned Black physicist Caroline Beatrice Parker. Finley was a Confederate general who contributed to the culture of lynching in Alachua County.

The board also prohibited masks with valves in schools. It also made clearer exceptions to the mandatory mask policy, such as when someone is eating or drinking or when it impedes instruction during sports or band.

School board members grappled with addressing concerns with learning options.

“We are not going to say what the other districts are doing,” said Leanetta McNealy, the Vice Chairperson. “I don’t care what the other 66 are doing. I am worried about what we are doing and how it impacts the students in our community.”

To McNealy, teacher morale seems low. She said nine teachers have resigned and another six have retired recently.

“We have a good school system,” she said. “But it’s one that can be better, and we need to pull ourselves together.”

Nestled between discussions about the budget and new face mask policies, the board heard from staff and parents concerned about HyFlex, a learning model in which teachers have students in the classroom and on the computer simultaneously.

The adopted models lead to inequities for students because of access to devices and the internet, said Prescott Cowles, an ACPS teacher who has worked at Camp Crystal Lake, Lake Forest Elementary and Alachua eSchool.

Cowles told the board that he spoke to the inventor of Hyflex, Brian Beatty, a graduate professor at San Francisco State University. He said that Beatty believes the model isn’t appropriate for K-12 students.

“If he doesn't recommend it, I don't know why we would take it upon ourselves to do it,” Cowles said.

Erin Cushing, a mother to a third grader at Stephen Foster Elementary, spoke about how she believes her son’s teacher resigned due to technological challenges. She said ACPS needs to have grace and compassion for teachers and students.

“This was a veteran teacher, and technology defeated her,” Cushing said.

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