In the wake of the proposed cigarette tax failing to pass, Council continues to work on finalizing the city budget. During these deliberations and public debate on school funding, there seems to be a little bit of confusion as people make their objections to providing more funding to the school board. Below I breakdown some of the objections, provide backstory, and any information I could dig up.
Unspent Maintenance and Construction Funds
Problem: Individuals are questioning the need for additional maintenance funds and the urgency to find additional dollars for schools because there is $13.7 million sitting in an account. During the 4/26/2018 budget work session, 2nd District Councilwoman Kim Gray cited $18 million was given to the school district while she was on board that has gone mostly unspent as reason to not provide the school district with additional maintenance funds.
Backstory: $18,000,000 was allocated to the school district by Council in the FY 2016 budget for school planning and construction of schools in Southside. According to the financial statement for month ending February 28, 2018 there is $13,761,445 in the School Planning and Construction account remaining.
Current Status: For more specifics on the current status of funds, below is updated documentation on all RPS Capital Balances through 3/31/2018. On February 20th, Kamras presented a Phase 1 Facilities proposal to Richmond School Board that indicated the proposed facilities construction would be funded with revenue of $150 million from the meals tax plus $14 million available in capital funds. These unspent dollars are committed to funding Phase 1 of the facilities plan that includes money to replace George Mason, Green, Elkhardt-Thompson, and George Wythe. On April 9th, the School Board received a draft timeline to start school construction:
- City Issues RFP by May 1, 2018
- RPS Selects Design by July 15, 2018
- City Approves Start of Construction by March 15, 2019
- City Begins Construction by April 1, 2019
- Greene Elementary Opens by August 15, 2020
- George Mason Elementary Opens by August 15, 2020
- Elkhardt-Thompson Middle Opens by August 15, 2021
- George Wythe High Opens by August 15, 2021
Unpaid Bus Lease
Problem: Individuals are questioning if the School Board should be trusted to spend money appropriately and point to them being given funded to pay the bus leases off in full and not following through as evidence.
Backstory: Last budget cycle, RVA Mayor certified school’s unassigned fund balance as long as it would go back to the school district. RVA Council decided to give it back to the school district in the form of money to buy laptops for teachers, general maintenance, and to pay off the bus lease. Paying off the bus lease in full would free up additional operating dollars. At a school board meeting on February 20th, 8th District Board Member Linda Owen asked if the bus lease had been paid off. At that point, it had not been paid off. 6th District Board Member Felicia Cosby contended that they need to use the money but wait to see how much Council allocates to the school district to determine if the funds are best spent on the bus leases versus other priorities. Cosby seemed to feel like she did not agree with Council dictating how School Board should spend the unassigned fund balance when they gave it back to the district.
Current Status: Sources say RPS administration signed off and submitted the request for the funds to be paid to the vendor to pay the bus lease in full. Below is a document showing the EFT request for payment.
Option 5 as a Comprehensive Plan
Problem: 2nd District Councilwoman Gray has indicated several times that she is not willing to fund a plan that is not comprehensive and includes school closings. She has referenced the facilities plan that was created during her tenure known as “option 5" as a comprehensive plan.
Option 5 Backstory: In April 2015, the previous school board was presented with an RPS Facilities Needs Report that presented five options to address facilities. Option 5 was presented as a mix of lower and higher cost options including consolidation and building new schools. In October 2015, the board was presented with three phases of option 5 that included math on how many elementary, middle, and high schools were to be opened and closed. By the end of the 3 phases, there would have been 16 schools closed, 7 schools built, and 2 schools receiving additions for a net total of 9 less schools. In the same document, the next steps were outlined for the recommendation to be finalized by school board approval by March 2016. On March 14, 2016 at a joint meeting of City Council and School Board, a budget balancing strategy including merging schools with closing schools was presented; however, only numbers of schools to be closed were presented. There were no specific names identified.
Current Status: Option 5 included hypothetical school closures; however, it did not identify specific schools slated for closure in the plan. Current Richmond School Board reviewed facilities plan options known as Plan A and Plan B. Both plans were a 20 year flight plan of how to address the facilities needs broken down into four phases that included specific schools to receive renovations. Plan A had a total price tag of ~$796M and Plan B had a total price tag of ~$741M. Phase 1 of both plans was identical. The difference was that in Plan B, phases 2-4 involved school consolidation (read: closures) while Plan A did not. The board did not want to vote on something that would impact 20 years when their tenure is only 4 years and needs change over time. School Board passed Plan A, Phase 1 with a projected cost of ~$225M (Phase 1 of Plan B would have included the same schools but would have been ~$11M cheaper). Regardless of if the school board adopted Phase 1 of Plan A or Plan B, there is a price tag that is currently higher than any of the funding amounts being discussed combined.
Problem: Individuals point to an alleged $8.3M surplus as a reason to not provide more money for schools because money has gone unspent.
Backstory: In March 2017, Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that RPS built up an $8.3M surplus outside of the public eye.
Current Status: On March 20, 2017 during a school board meeting, the school administration explained that the money is not a surplus but an “unassigned fund balance” that came from vacancies or lower salaries. The money is reported annually to the school board and city council and is publicly available in the school’s CAFR report. In addition, monthly financial reports are presented to school board with a status of all funds.