Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mayor Jones and the School Board

Loyal reader, some pretty exciting things have been going on in River City during the past month. First, our elected school board reported a budget for Richmond Public Schools (RPS) for the school year 2012-13 that requires $24 million more in revenues than the City of Richmond has provided in previous years. Second, our mayor, Dwight Jones, lambasted the school board for its action and appointed a “school accountability and efficiency task force” to look for ways to reduce spending in RPS and to improve classroom performance. Third, our school board has been holding public meetings in different parts of the city to explain its budget action and to get public support. Fourth, the mayor’s task force has itself been holding meetings. Fifth, the mayor submitted to the City Council a city budget that does not include any additional funding for Richmond Public Schools. Sixth (and I assume not finally), members of Richmond’s City Council have become involved in the dispute, suggesting ways to make RPS more efficient.

Until now, this maven has sat on the side line watching our politicians perform. Now, I must end my silence and add some sanity to the public dispute.

A little background: In the Commonwealth of Virginia the supervision of public schools in each jurisdiction is vested in a school board that is independent of the governing body in that jurisdiction. Virginia Code, section 22.1-28. However, school boards in Virginia have no authority to raise revenues. Instead they rely on funding from several sources. In Richmond, for example, RPS receives funding primarily from the Commonwealth of Virginia, from the Federal Government and from the City of Richmond. In preparing annual budgets Virginia school boards are bound by section 22.1-92 of the Virginia Code, which requires them, working with their superintendents, to submit to the governing body in the jurisdiction an “estimate of the amount of money deemed to be needed during the next fiscal year for the support of the public schools of the school division. The estimate shall set up the amount of money deemed to be needed for each major classification prescribed by the Board of Education and such other headings or items as may be necessary.”

1. I wholeheartedly support this year’s budget action by our school board. For four years I have been criticizing the school board for abdicating its responsibility under state law to report a budget based on the needs of RPS rather than on the level of funding that has been provided by the City of Richmond in previous years. Who’s on the Side of the Kids, Who’s on the Side of the Kids (Not Again), Will School Board Finally Follow the Law? Two years ago, I even lauded a school board in another part of the state that was actually following the law. A School Board That Does Its Job,.

Now that the Richmond school board has finally chosen to submit a budget that appears to be based on RPS needs, I laud them. They have put the debate over the proper funding of Richmond Public Schools in the City Council, where it belongs.

2. I am not sure what authority resides in the mayor’s school accountability and efficiency task force. Certainly, the mayor has appointed it. However, he can only assign to the task force authority which he has as mayor. He cannot create a committee or task force that has more authority than he has. As I said above, in Virginia, governance of local school districts is vested in the school board. Local governing bodies (boards of supervisors in the counties, the mayor and city council in the City of Richmond) get involved in the running of the schools only once each year—in deciding the amount of local funds that will be appropriated to the school district. So, I assume that the task force has authority to make recommendations to the mayor in how to deal with the school budget for 2012-13. However, since the mayor has already submitted his entire budget to the City Council, without asking any additional funds for RPS over last year’s level, it doesn’t appear that the mayor needs any recommendations from the task force (at least for the budget year 2012-13). Of course, in deliberating on the city budget in the coming weeks, the city council is certainly free to consider recommendations from the mayor’s task force.

3. Despite the separation in rolls specified in state law, this maven is not advocating that the mayor and city council have no responsibility for the operation of Richmond Public Schools. On the contrary. I think that in the past some members of the city council have sidestepped issues relating to RPS by saying it is the responsibility of the school board not of the council. The condition of RPS is far too important to the city for any elected official to ever say, “It’s not my responsibility.” I’m sure I have said it before, but if I haven’t I will say it loudly and clearly now: The City of Richmond will never be a great city until it has great public schools. It really doesn’t matter what else the city government does. So long as our schools are not world-class, Richmond will only be a C+ or B- city.

As a first step, I suggest that the city council and the school board schedule a minimum of four joint meetings each year, with the mayor and school superintendent in attendance. The agenda of each of these meetings should be to develop strategies and implementing plans to improve Richmond’s public schools—high school by high school, middle school by middle school, elementary school by elementary school—so that every child that is born in the City of Richmond may receive a first class public school education, regardless of their ethnicity or economic status and regardless of the neighborhood in which they live.

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