Richmond Public Schools, City Council/Mayor, and the Budget

by Jessee Perry

 

When is enough going to be enough? What will it take for Richmond City to find the funds for Richmond Public Schools? Why is it that year after year Richmond Public Schools get scrutinized and squeezed to find more efficiencies? What audit and plan will be comprehensive enough? Why is it acceptable that only a quarter of recommendations made by Richmond’s City auditor were implemented by the City of Richmond? Why are the answers other city departments give to reject audit recommendations sufficient; however, despite RPS Board accepting recommendations totaling $22M in budget reductions from FY09-14, City Council still lobs attacks of inefficiency? How much scrutiny and how many cuts will be enough to satiate Council? Is the Education Compact going to find funding solutions or will it be the 6th District Councilwoman’s recently promised commission? When Richmond voters have spoken through their election of school board representatives who choose to have a facilities plan that does not include school closures, why are other elected officials holding funding solutions hostage contingent on implementing school closures? When will the bar stop moving and schools be funded?  

In 2016, the Bellweather report provided insight to a few reasons of why the cost of education is higher in Richmond compared to other localities in the state. The size and number of schools was not the only contributing factor; therefore, reducing the number is not the only answer. No, the other answers were not easy, quick fixes. Addressing these challenges would require making long-term investments in communities in Richmond to improve the economic outcomes of the families of RPS Students. Sure, closing schools is easier as a short-term solution than addressing the long-term challenges that got us here. Every governing body has choices to make about their priorities and focus. But in the face of studies that emphasize the importance of community schools, who benefits from school closures? Is it the students or families? Or is it politicians who are able to say they funded schools? The current Richmond School Board has chosen to not accept the higher cost of community schools as a reason to not provide that resource for the families they serve. These School Board members reflect the voice of what Richmond City residents want to see in their schools. Just like how the current Richmond City Council and Mayor reflect the voice of what Richmond City residents want to see in their city which is funded schools.

To be clear, this is not the sole fault of the current City Council and Mayor but it is currently in their hands to stop this cycle and finally make a move. These are issues that started long before January 2017 when the current terms of Council and Mayor began; however, both bodies are currently taking very similar stances as past leadership when it comes to addressing schools through cuts and closures. For example, in a November 2017 update on the city-wide performance review, page 24 notes that there would be proposal to fund the first phase of the Schools Facilities Plan provided the School Board passes a plan involving "right-sizing" aka school closures. Another example is 2nd District Councilwoman Kim Gray who has been the most vocally adamant on City Council that she will not approve funding for a school facilities plan that does not involve school closures. It legitimately pains me to hear some Richmond City Council members make the same arguments time and time again about why they will not allocate additional funding for schools. Demanding more efficiencies, calling for closures, crying out for yet another audit. Meanwhile, children continue to suffer. Another generation of kids receives an inadequate education while adults argue. It makes me sick to my stomach to hear how some City Council members choose to speak to and about the school administration in public meetings. This is not how adults much less leaders should treat each other.

I hope that providing a trail of documents from years past will establish context for the frustration of many school advocates especially as the current Council members and Mayor press the School Board for more data, more audits, school closures, and different plans. Maybe even some of this will help quench current City Council members insatiable thirst for more data, more plans, and more cuts to Richmond Public Schools.


AUDITS

I have heard calls for audits and Council members demand to know where the school district's money is going. First, I contend that every year Council is presented with breakdown of funding during budget time, there are monthly reports the School Board receives on the status of funds spent, and the School district has a check register where you can look up every single outgoing expense the district makes. There are many things Richmond City and Richmond Public Schools have a dearth of... data is not one of those things. Sometimes it seems some Council members do not want the data just for the spirit of transparency but in the spirit of oversight so they can dictate exactly where every dollar is spent. Well, that isn't Council's job but on top of that, the school district is under the oversight of the Virginia Department of Education's Memorandum of Understanding. This means every dollar spent is subject to VDOE scrutiny that it is being spent only on items that produce academic outcomes. Sorry #RVACouncil but I think VDOE oversight is far more powerful than y'all thumbing through the numbers. 

Below is a history of the audits I was able to find with links. On some of them I point out interesting information contained in each one. The biggest takeaway here is that for over a decade, RPS has been continually squeezed to find efficiencies. I found this nifty little summary document given to RPS Board in January 2017 that outlines year over year changes from FY09-FY17 in RPS adopted budgets and staffing levels. During that time period, 190 positions have been cut. RPS budget is $10M higher than where it was in 2009; however, it was not until FY16 when RPS hit the same funding levels of the FY09 budget. 


BUT WE NEED A PLAN THOUGH!

I have heard calls for two kinds of plans: a comprehensive facilities plan and a strategic plan. In years past, these types of plans and documents have been produced by the school district only to go unfunded. 

Before I dive into a bunch of documents on previous plans, let's take a quick detour to the history of Richmond City Council since 2005 when we transitioned to our current strong-mayor form of government. Currently on council, there are 4 members who have been on City Council for almost or more than a decade (don't forget that 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammel was originally elected in 1998 and did not serve on Council from 2002-2007). I do not see where the ideology and preferred methodology of the current City Council is substantially different enough for them to be massive change makers in the vicious cycle of underfunding our schools. In my opinion, I do not think presenting the current Council with MORE data/information/audits will produce any different outcome than we have already seen unless we (the people) hold our Council members accountable at the ballot box.

CC History.JPG

FACILITIES PLANS

Throughout several iterations and updates to the plans there are two constants: facilities continue to get worse and costs keep rising. No matter how you slice this pie, it is still going to be expensive. Even when there was a plan on the table that pledged to include school closures alongside rezoning and new schools, it still didn’t get funded. 

 

STRATEGIC PLAN

In this section, I have included as many plans with promised outcomes for the school district as I could find. Whether it is called a strategic plan, a school-level strategic plan, academic improvement plan, or corrective action plan, they all have the same goal: to drive change in RPS results. The plans start in 2010 and for reference, you will find a snap snot of the RPS Adopted Budget Summary from FY09-FY17 below.

 Richmond Public Schools General Fund Budget Summary FY09-FY17

Richmond Public Schools General Fund Budget Summary FY09-FY17

Yeah, plans are great but you still have to fund the plan if you expect any type of result. And don't forget VDOE's MOU requires a Corrective Action Plan from the school district which is far more oversight than our City Council could hope to offer of the progress and daily expenditures of the district. 

I bring all of these documents together in one place as we are about to embark on another Strategic Planning Process. What is it that Richmond City Council feels like they still need to see? Previous plans have gone unfunded so what makes this time any different? In my opinion, demanding more plans and blaming the school district is an easy way to avoid having to make difficult choices. The only way this cycle changes is when our elected officials know the people are dead serious come election time. Different government entities nitpicking and blaming and arguing can not continue to be the normal path of Richmond if anyone expects any type of improvement. 


QUESTIONED TO DEATH

Unfortunately prior to 2016, the City Council website did not maintain records of documents provided to Council during budget work sessions and RPS Board Docs was not fully implemented until 2015. Below you will find documents from recent years that show the amount of information RPS has provided to City Council during budget deliberations. Some of the documents include line-by-line expenditures while others include answers to questions from Council. This is not to suggest that our Council should not question the School Board; however, as I read some of these documents I had to question... why in the world is that information absolutely vital to make a funding decision? Or even better, why after receiving the answer did they STILL not provide funding? There is a point where questions stop being helpful and start being excuses and delay tactics.

Oh if only there was some type of quarterly joint meeting (*cough* Education Compact *cough*) between the Mayor, City Council, and School Board where they could discuss and articulate EXACTLY what it is they feel like they need to be comfortable providing money to schools. If our elected officials are serious about their campaign promises to fund schools, they need to step up and be excruciatingly clear on what items are needed and follow through on their commitment when the School Board provides the requested documentation. That said, this should not be seen as an opportunity for Council or the Mayor's office to insert themselves in to the operations of the school district by dictating actions or policies. Set the expectation of what should be delivered by the school district and then let the board govern. 


CUT IT OUT LUCY!

From one side of their mouth, City Councils and Mayors of past and present say they are committed to the success of Richmond Public Schools while lamenting the sub-par outcomes produced by the district. The other side of their mouth points to a history of demands for cuts and audits. When are our elected officials going to realize that the two might be related? 

  • Between 2005-2015, RPS Board closed 17 schools and opened 4 new schools. These actions resulted in a a net reduction of 13 schools, 425,000 square feet, and 2,981 seats. 
  • From FY09-FY14, the district reduced the budget by $22M. In FY12-FY13, 142 positions were eliminated. Some of the cuts included eliminating 8 FTE positions in Central Office, eliminating 36 custodial/maintenance positions, and eliminating 7 security positions. Between FY09-FY17, a total of 190 positions were eliminated. 
  • RPS did not reach FY09 levels again until FY16. 
  • Between 2007-2012, RPS underwent 24 audits that resulted in 502 recommendations. 425 recommendations were adopted. 
  • According to the 2016 Bellweather report, of the district's $354M total budget, only ~$150M of the general fund is considered "addressable" for the district to make budget choices. Of that $150M, $77M goes to classroom instruction, $17M goes to instructional support, $6M goes to school leadership, $15M goes to transportation/attendance/health, $29M goes to technology/operations/maintenance, and $6M goes to the administration. 

I heard one long-time Councilperson call for Council to take bold, courageous action to turn schools around. The sad reality is the bold, courageous action City Council refuses to take is trusting RPS Board and Administration to do their jobs. If City Council and the Mayor's Office truly want change then stop taking the exact same approach of your predecessors. This whole "One Richmond" or #1RVA campaign has to start with our elected officials genuinely working together toward one common goal: find funding for RPS without conditions attached.