Friday, March 23, 2012

Mayor Jones and the School Board (Part 2)

Just over four years ago I posted an item that angered many
of Richmond politicians. I refer you to “Throwing Down the Gauntlet”
In that blog entry I challenged the then-mayor, Doug Wilder, and the Richmond City Council (including my own representative Kathy Graziano) to provide adequate funding for Richmond Public Schools (RPS). Back in 2008, the maven still had a fire in my belly, so I used some pretty fiery language. For example:

And let’s face it. The mayor is not the only public official in Richmond who says “screw ‘em” to our children. Our beloved City Council has re-imposed its funding freeze on RPS for at least another year. Fellow citizens, face the realities, a funding freeze is really a funding cut because costs are constantly going up. So, although other city spending goes up (all those increased assessments produced a big influx of revenue) our children continue to suffer. One of our councilpersons even has the audacity to call it “tough love.” Are our children acting so badly that we have to “tough love” them with budget cuts?

I then posted some statistics that I am sure that Richmond politicians found unsettling. I listed the percentage of the annual outlays that various jurisdictions were devoting to public education. This is what I reported:

City of Richmond 26.1%
Chesterfield County 38%
Henrico County 54%
City of Norfolk 40.3%
City of Virginia Beach 48%

I then made it clear that not only was Richmond spending a smaller percentage of its operating budget on its schools then other jurisdictions but also that the money for schools was a shrinking part of our budget. This is what I reported:

Fiscal year 2007 26.1%
Fiscal year 2008 25.03%
Fiscal year 2009 24.71%

Trusted reader, just in case you think things may have changed since 2008 when I wrote that piece, take a look at the current figures. For fiscal year 2012, the City of Richmond is now providing only 21.2% of its annual budget to Richmond Public Schools.

Let me repeat this to make it clear. In fiscal year 2007 the City of Richmond dedicated 26.15% of its annual budget to RPS (which was significantly less than other jurisdictions). In fiscal year 2012 the City of Richmond is dedicating only 21.2% of its annual budget to RPS. And from what I read in our great metropolitan daily, Mayor Jones has submitted his budget request to City Council for 2013 without requesting any additional funds for RPS.

So, loyal reader, the next time the mayor or your city council member tells you that they support the children of Richmond and want to provide them with a world-class education, you tell them to put the city’s checkbook where their mouths are.

As I mentioned yesterday, two weeks ago our mayor appointed a task force to find ways to reduce spending in RPS. This followed the school board’s action in submitting a budget that needed an additional $24 million to permit the level of expenditure that the board was recommending. According to the article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the mayor made it clear “[t]hat the city doesn’t have an additional $24 million. I can assure you we’re not going to raise taxes for an additional $24 million.”

It is unfortunate that Mayor Jones portrayed adequate funding for RPS public schools as an issue that can only be solved by raising $24 million in additional taxes. Mayor Jones knows that the RPS share of the city pie did not shrink from 26 to 21 percent over the last five years because taxes were being cut. He knows that this shrinkage arose over the years because he and his predecessor as mayor and the members of the city council made the conscious decision year after year that other programs in the city had a higher priority than the education of our children. Providing adequate funding for RPS does not require tax increases. Rather it requires the city council to make some difficult decisions and to move funding from other programs back to RPS. Richmond ought to spend at least a quarter of its annual budget on our schools.

Reader, the city’s Biennial Fiscal Plan for 2012-2013 has the title “Moving Towards a Tier One City.” I am not sure exactly what a tier one city is, but I assume it means something like a great city. As I said yesterday, the City of Richmond will never be a great city until it has great schools. I add today that the City of Richmond will never be a great city if it continues to spend only 21% of its budget on its public schools.

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.