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Isle of Wight appropriates ARPA funds for schools

Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Sept. 16 to appropriate $3.7 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds into Isle of Wight County Schools’ 2021-2022 budget.

The federal $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package had allocated Isle of Wight County Schools $4.7 million in total. The Board of Supervisors had previously appropriated $1.04 million for the school system’s use in July to fund projects school officials said needed to be complete by the first day of classes in September.

Carrsville District Supervisor Don Rosie cast the dissenting vote.

“I’d just like to have a little more time to digest it and think about what I’ve heard tonight,” Rosie said, after speakers during a public hearing asked the supervisors to examine the proposed uses for the funds more closely — or even consider withholding the funds — over citizen opposition at recent School Board meetings to the school system’s equity and inclusion initiatives.

“I am here to oppose the release of these funds right now,” said Jennifer Boykin of Carrsville.

“I know we need these funds,” she added, but “taxpayers need to see exactly where the children’s money is being spent. After all, it is just that — the children’s money. It’s for their education, not indoctrination.”

Critics have accused the school system’s coordinator of equity and inclusion, Kiyaana Cox-Jones, and other members of Isle of Wight County Schools’ leadership team of bringing Critical Race Theory into the school system through the equity program.

Critical Race Theory argues American law and institutions have perpetuated social, economic and political inequalities among minority groups. Critics say the concept is divisive and has the potential to set Blacks and whites against each other.

“Somehow he (Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton) managed to hire an equity and inclusion coordinator that makes a starting salary nearly twice the salary of an average school teacher,” added Jason Maresh of Windsor.

Cox-Jones earns just over $82,000 annually. Isle of Wight offers a minimum salary of $44,945 for an entry-level teacher with no prior experience. In 2018, Isle of Wight’s School Board raised the minimum salary for coordinators from $63,197 to $75,000.

School officials have repeatedly stated IWCS isn’t teaching Critical Race Theory, but parents like Maresh contend Jones’ teacher training and voluntary programs like Smithfield High School’s “Read Woke” challenge can still influence students.

The Read Woke challenge — “woke” being a slang term for an awareness of injustice, particularly racism, in society — involves encouraging students to choose from a list of 70 social justice-themed titles available at Smithfield High’s library; some of the books contain profanity and sexual content.

“They’re, in my opinion, and by my moral compass, completely inappropriate and unacceptable for kids,” Maresh said.

Herb De Groft of Smithfield further questioned whether ARPA funds for teacher training had anything to do with equity and inclusion. According to Thornton, the ARPA-funded teacher training will primarily involve instructing teachers in how to remediate students’ reading skill losses due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The school system has proposed to use $2.1 million of its allotment for instructional services, primarily to remediate learning loss, $400,000 for operations and maintenance, and $1.1 million for technology, primarily to maintain its one-to-one student-to-computer ratio.

According to County Attorney Bobby Jones, the county has no authority to dictate to the School Board how the ARPA funds are to be spent. As these are federal funds, the federal government is the entity with oversight as to how they are spent, Jones said.

“The county is just a pass-through agent … I do not believe that this board has the authority to dice this or chop this or even withhold this based on how it’s coming down the pipeline,” Newport District Supervisor William McCarty agreed.

Whether the Board of Supervisors approves or disapproves of how that money is spent “is unfortunately immaterial,” McCarty added.

After Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson made the motion to approve the budget amendment, Rosie made a substitute motion that the board table the matter; it failed 4-1 with only Rosie voting in favor of it. The board then voted on Jefferson’s original motion to approve, which passed 4-1 with Rosie dissenting.