Saturday, March 22, 2008

Don’t Lower the Tax Rate, Invest in Schools

According to Michael Martz in the TD this morning, increased property assessments will produce extra revenue for the City of Richmond equal to a one cent change in the tax rate. 1 City Council President Bill Pantele used this news as additional ammunition in his debate with Mayor Wilder over whether the tax rate should be lowered in the city. Mr. Pantele argues that increased revenues anticipated from higher assessments will make it possible for the City Council to lower the tax rate from its current level of $1.23 per hundred dollars of real estate value. The mayor, on the other hand, argues that in these times of economic weakness it would be irresponsible to lower the tax rate.

You know me—there is little that Mayor Doug does that I approve of. However, in this dispute I have to agree with him that it would be irresponsible to cut the tax rate. It would be irresponsible, at least until the council makes sure that Richmond Public Schools are getting adequate funding. Since in preparing their budget both the Superintendent and the School Board were restricted by the council to the same level of city funding as in the two previous years, I do not believe that the school budget really meets the needs of our city’s children.

As I have, hopefully, made clear, our city’s public schools have a serious problem which is adversely affecting River City’s demographics. Richmond Public Schools is failing to educate hundreds of middle class children that reach school age in the city each year. These are the children whose parents opt out of RPS by moving out of the city, using private schools or home schooling their young’uns. The fact is that no matter how good Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman tells us Richmond’s public schools have become and how much better we’re gonna get, a large proportion of the students in RPS are there only because their parents cannot afford the other options.

Unfortunately, other commitments kept me from hearing Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s second “State of the Schools” address last week. I did read about it, however. The superintendent’s remarks are inspiring and make me feel really optimistic about the future of our schools. I felt the same way last fall when I attended two of the School Board’s public forums on the proposed “New Direction” for RPS. Come to think of it, I was equally enthused by Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s first “State of the Schools” last year, when she discussed her 2015 plan. Sometimes, however, I wonder whether all this inspiring talk is enough.

Look, I know that the members of the School Board and the entire RPS staff are doing a wonderful job. I know that the performance of our children, at least on the state’s SOL tests, has improved considerably. I spend a couple of hours each week in two of our elementary schools and I see dedicated teachers and our children working hard and eager to learn. You may remember that last fall I bragged about what a good a job RPS is doing. 2

Yet, there are so many parents in this city that do not believe that their neighborhood elementary school can give their child a first-class education. Our mayor has repeatedly told our citizens that the School Board and RPS are doing a bad job—wasting money with little results. Twenty-six of the Metro area’s business leaders have declared the state of our schools to be an “emergency.” The Crupi report, last fall, described one of the Richmond area’s negatives as “Weak City Public Schools.”

Look, I don’t like paying high taxes. Last summer, I raised the question of why we in the city pay so much more in taxes than do our neighbors across the border. 3
I would really enjoy the reduction in tax rates being offered by Mr. Pantele and other members of the City Council. But, I don’t want a tax cut if it means we are not giving all our children the best possible public education. I assume that the other residents of our fair city feel the same.

So to the City Council I say:
1- add funding to the school budget so that RPS can more quickly implement the “New Direction”;
2- add funding to the school budget to pay for converting several of the city’s elementary schools to International Baccalaureate Primary Years schools;
3- provide sufficient additional funds to the school budget so that RPS’ share of general fund expenditures is restored to at least the 26.11% level it was in fiscal year 2007, rather than the 24.71% currently planned for fiscal year 2009.

Honorable members of the City Council, you must look at money you appropriate for Richmond’s public schools as an investment in the future of our children, not as just dollars spent. We have thousands of children in our city who must have a first-class public education if they are to break out of the multigenerational poverty they were born into. We also must do something to win back the city children whose parents have not enrolled them in our public schools. Adequately funding our public schools is not just a matter of dealing justly with our children. It is also a matter of moving this city toward the greatness it can achieve.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you.

Unfortunately, adequately funding public schools or a more humane jail would inconvenience the VaPAF/Center Stage project, and Richmond 'leaders', both in and behind the scene, simply won't let that happen.

Anonymous said...

How about we clean up those taxpayer funded golden parachutes in the tune of $6MM per year for former employees before asking the rest of the city to fund the continued largess.

What you say? Check out page 65 of the approved budget. The figures are there for all to see.

What a joke!