With students in the Fulton County School System going back to school Aug. 6, its leader said safety/security remains a top priority, following the shootings at schools across the country in 2017-18.
In fact, the district plans to increase that portion of its 2018-19 budget once its new safety advisory committee brings to the board of education its findings after spending at least two months studying what the district has done and possibly needs to do to address the issue, Superintendent Jeff Rose, Ed.D, said.
“We need to continue to focus on what safety means for our schools. … The goal there will be to say this will be the next layer of added security and safety for our students,” he said of the committee’s findings.
Rose and other district leaders spoke on that topic and more at Fulton’s 2018-19 back-to-school press briefing Monday at its office in Sandy Springs. Rose said the extra amount the district will spend on school safety and security will depend on the committee’s recommendations, and the funds will come from the budget’s ending fund balance.
He and others said the district has already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in programs that will help keep each school safe and secure. One program is Avigilon’s surveillance cameras and software that are being installed in 17 more schools by Jan. 1.
“The new cameras also have an artificial intelligence component, which allows users to target things within facilities,” district Chief Operations Officer Patrick Burke said. “So you can actually tag an individual and do an appearance search and find (that) individual within a building using this technology. It’s truly amazing.”
Chief Academic Officer Clifford Jones said the district has loaded onto all 65,000 devices it gives its students the Quick Tip app, which allows them to report anything or anyone suspicious at their schools.
“This valuable flow of information is just one tool to support the slogan of ‘If you see something, say something,’” Jones said.
Burke said the district has also hired 10 more social workers and six more police officers, increasing its police force to 70. Also, for the first time, officers are being outfitted with body cameras.
“In this budget we also approved 10 additional training days for our officers, with emphasis on law enforcement active shooter protocols,” Burke said. “Nineteen additional vehicles were ordered this year. These vehicles provide not only great visibility for our district’s school police team in our community, but they also increase mobility and response capability for our officers.”
Jones said the district has also loaded on its student devices LaunchPad, software that “allows students to have access to a suite of learning tools in an anytime-and-anywhere environment,” and i-Ready, a math app that supplies K-8 students with “additional support or accelerate learning as needed.”
Regarding test scores, Rose praised the district’s high-performing schools based on results from 2017-18 but wants the low-performing ones to continue to improve. While the schools making an 80 or above on the College-and-Career-Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) increased from 44 to 50, those making a 60 or below, considered failing schools by the state, dropped from 28 to 18.
“Out of those 28, 26 of those schools improved, and 17 of those schools had double-digit gains,” he said. “Our goal, by the way, when we talk about failing schools, is zero. We believe we can do that within three years. That includes last year.”
Regarding 2018-19, Burke said there is no change in lunch costs, but there will be a five-cent increase in breakfast prices.
As for school construction, according to information provided by the district, it is opening no new schools this year, but at least 20 schools have seen upgrades, to the tune of $20 million paid for by education special-purpose local-option sales tax (ESPLOST) funds.
Seven high schools have had their stadium turf and/or tracks replaced or refurbished this year, in time for 2018-19. Alpharetta, Centennial, Chattahoochee, Riverwood and Westlake are getting new turf and Alpharetta, Creekside, Roswell and Westlake are receiving new tracks.
As part of a three-phase campus revitalization plan, Riverwood’s new classroom building is opening and will house 18 classrooms. Fourteen other schools received upgrades ranging from roof repairs or replacements to HVAC improvements and alarm system replacements.
In the staffing department, Chief Talent Officer Ron Wade said the district will hire over 800 new teachers this year and has already filled 706 of those slots. The remaining spots may not all be filled until after the district’s enrollment, which Rose projected to be over 95,000 students for 2018-19, is set.
“The remaining vacancies continue to trend toward those hard-to-staff areas like special education, science and math,” Wade said. “Interestingly enough, we are finding that we were having some consistent vacancies in elementary (schools), and our goal is to really explore that and find out why that happened.”
Also, all eligible district employees will receive a pay step increase, while teachers on steps 4 through 14 would also receive a 2 percent pay increase starting this January, according to a news release.
Regarding the district’s 900-plus bus fleet, last year it started phasing in propane-powered buses. That initiative will continue this year with plans, by Labor Day, to buy 12 more of those buses, which are more 75 percent cleaner than the district’s old diesel buses and save it $3,500 each in annual maintenance costs, Burke said.
“This will bring our fleet to a grand total of 187 propane-powered buses, which makes it the largest fleet of its kind in the state,” he said, adding each new bus will have three-point seatbelts.