Sunday, February 24, 2008

Who’s on the Side of the Kids?

I started this entry last Wednesday morning and then, for reasons that would be boring to you, set it aside. It is still very relevant so…

Since I wasn’t able to attend the public hearing on the school budget Tuesday, I will have to publish my comment.

I must confess that I haven’t read the complete budget. I am sure that there are plenty of people out there who will address specific lines in the budget to grind their own axes. For me the key fact is that the School Board is proposing for fiscal year 2009 a budget in which the funding provided by the City of Richmond is the same as in fiscal years 2007 and 2008. I think this is unconscionable.

A little background might make this easier to understand. Although Virginia law empowers school boards to supervise the schools, the General Assembly in its wisdom has chosen not to give school boards the authority to raise revenues. Therefore, Virginia school boards must rely on the Commonwealth, their local jurisdiction and other sources for the funds needed to operate the schools. The draft budget prepared by School Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman shows school board revenue coming from various sources. The pie chart on page 16 of her budget indicates that for fiscal year 2009 Richmond Public Schools will receive about 49% of its funding from an appropriation by the city, about 39% from Commonwealth education funding, about 10.5% from Richmond’s share of state sales tax, and fractional amounts from the Federal Government and other sources.

Both Mayor Wilder and the City Council have directed the School Board to submit a budget based on the assumption that city appropriations to Richmond Public Schools will stay level between fiscal years 2007 and 2009. So, although the costs of running the schools go up because of inflation and although city revenues go up because of increased real estate assessments, the city’s political powers have directed the School Board to ask for no more money than it received this year and the year before to run the schools.

Section 22.1-28 of the Code of Virginia provides that

The supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board selected as provided in this chapter or as otherwise provided by law.

Part of the responsibility of supervising the schools is to prepare an annual budget that covers the needs of the children in the school system. When a school board prepares a budget that does not meet the school system’s needs, it is abdicating its statutory obligation.

There is no provision in the code saying that a school board’s supervision of public schools should be subject to the dictates of either a jurisdiction’s legislative or executive authorities. Thus if a city council or mayor dictates the level of funding for the schools in advance of the school board deliberating on its budget, the council or mayor is usurping the authority of the school board to supervise the schools.

From David Ress’s story in the TD last Tuesday, it appears that Richmond’s School Board is not fulfilling its statutory mandate. (The electronic version of this article is incomplete, so I won’t bother giving you the site.) The board is proposing a budget based on a city contribution the same as last year, rather than on the true needs of our city’s children. According to Ress, School Board Chair George Braxton stated,

We’ve matched the resources we were told by the city administration that we’d have. It’s a tough budget year.

However, later in the article, Ress reports that Mr. Braxton indicated that the School Board was not legally bound by the limit on city spending imposed by the mayor and council. Mr. Braxton was also reported as saying that he would like to increase significantly the number of special education teachers employed by RPS.

What I cannot understand is why, if it doesn’t consider itself legally bound by the limit on city payments to RPS, the board chose to abide by those limits in its proposed budget. I am sure that in addition to Mr. Braxton’s special education teachers, there are other needs of the children being unmet by the proposed budget.

Even though, in Mr. Braxton’s words, it is a “tough budget year,” it is not the job of the School Board to balance the city’s budget. Rather, it is its job to assure that the needs of the students in city schools are being met. That requires it to prepare a budget that fully funds those needs.

So, if the School Board is not responsible for balancing the city’s budget, who is? Under our charter, that responsibility lies with the nine members of the City Council working in cooperation with the mayor. (For Doug Wilder I will explain that “cooperation” means working together with others.) The council will take the budget prepared by the School Board and the budget submitted by the mayor, which combines the budgets of the various city departments and agencies, and will make decisions about how to allocate the city’s revenues. Although those decisions will be difficult, making difficult decisions is what the members of the City Council were elected to do.

Not only is submitting a child-friendly budget the statutory responsibility of the School Board, it also makes political sense. This year is an election year. No member of the City Council wants to run for reelection having voted to cut needed funding from Richmond Public Schools. Perhaps that is the reason that the council wants the School Board to make the cuts for it. Certainly, the mayor recognizes the importance of school funding in this election year. If you remember, back at the beginning of February, Mr. Wilder crashed a School Board meeting to talk about money for the schools. As reported in the Times-Dispatch:

Wilder told the board he thinks Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman's budget proposal for next year, which has a $3.1 million shortfall, is a ploy designed to "cast me as that mean old nasty mayor" who once again has to cut school spending.

( The mayor apparently understands that whoever cuts funds from the budget of Richmond Public Schools this year will not be very popular with the voters.

So, as a citizen who cares about the future of the students in the City of Richmond, I urge the School Board to go “back to the drawing board” and prepare a budget that meets the children’s’ needs. If the School Board is not going to be “on the side of” our kids, who will?

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