Saturday, April 26, 2014

Richmond Public Schools: The Law is Clear

Sometimes, it is very frustrating to be a maven. You write and you write but nobody seems to listen. I can’t count the number of times I have explained the laws controlling the operation of the public schools in Richmond, VA, USA. And just when I think everybody understands, I see a turf war breaking out in our lovely city on the James between City Council and the School Board. City Council wants to form a committee composed of representatives of the mayor, council and school board to formulate a three-year plan for the operation of Richmond Public Schools. The School Board strongly objects to what it sees as an invasion of its jurisdiction. I don’t have time to go into more detail, so if you want to know more read these two articles. 1 2  

Now, pay attention. I will explain this once more. 

Article VIII, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution provides:

“The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.”

Article VIII, Section 7 of the constitution says:

“The supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board, to be composed of members selected in the manner, for the term, possessing the qualifications, and to the number provided by law.”

In implementing these constitutional mandates, the General Assembly enacted VA Code section 22.1-28 which provides:

“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.” 

The drafters of the constitution could have chosen to place school divisions under the control of local governing bodies like city councils or boards of supervisors. That would have been logical. But they did not. They put supervision of local school divisions in school boards that are independent of local governing bodies. I assume they did so to insulate school operation from local politics.

The citizens of Richmond maintained the independence of their local school board in the City’s charter. Section 20.01 of the charter reads, in part:

“Except as provided in this Charter the School Board shall have all the powers and duties relating to the management and control of the public schools of the City provided by the general laws of the Commonwealth. None of the provisions of this Charter shall be interpreted to refer to or include the School Board unless the intention so to do is expressly stated or is clearly apparent from the context.”

So, what about the City Council? As the City’s governing body, does it have no role to play in Richmond Public Schools? Yes, it has a role. That role has to do with providing funding for the operation of the schools. Section 22.1-93 of the Virginia Code states:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law . . . the governing body of a municipality shall prepare and approve an annual budget for educational purposes by May fifteen or within thirty days of the receipt by the municipality of the estimates of state funds, whichever shall later occur.”
The state law also mandates that the local governing body provide a minimum amount of local funding to supplement state funding for public schools. Section 22.1-94 says:

“A governing body may make appropriations to a school board from the funds derived from local levies and from any other funds available, for operation, capital outlay and debt service in the public schools. Such appropriations shall be not less than the cost apportioned to the governing body for maintaining an educational program meeting the standards of quality for the several school divisions prescribed as provided by law.” 

This requirement was incorporated in Section 6.14 of the City Charter that provides:

“It shall be the duty of the school board to submit its budget estimates to the mayor at the same time as other departments and in the form prescribed by the mayor. The mayor and council may take any action on the school budget permitted by § 22.1-94 of the Code of Virginia or any other provision of general law not in conflict with this charter.” 

But maven, surely the City Council has the statutory authority to create a committee to formulate a three-year plan for Richmond Public Schools.

Trusted reader, you have not been listening carefully. I have found no statute authorizing City Council to take such action. This is no different than two years ago, when Mayor Jones created a school accountability and efficiency task force. As I said then,

“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.”

Likewise with the Council’s committee. Council can create it, but it cannot assign to it authority that it does not have. 

Maven, are you really saying that City Council has no authority to make sure Richmond Public Schools is operating properly? 

Now, dear reader, you are putting words in my mouth. Of course the City Council has authority. As the appropriating body it has the implicit authority to oversee Richmond Public School’s use of the money it gives it. As part of the yearly budget process, the School Board submits its annual budget, which should explain how RPS used past appropriations and how it intends to spend the money School Board is asking for. If the Council is not satisfied with the explanations in the School Board’s budget, it has the right to ask the Chair of the Board or the Superintendent of Schools to explain in more detail.

Let me plagiarize some words I wrote two years ago:

“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.”

So, Maven, what should we do?

Patient reader; you know that before I enrolled in the Maven Academy I was an attorney. So I know how to operate within the bounds of the law. I have two suggestions that can be implemented immediately.

1- Let the city councilmember and the school board representative in each of the city’s nine electoral districts get together to discuss how the council and board can work together to improve Richmond’s public schools. This will provide an opportunity to defuse the current dispute and to build trust between them. This trust can be brought by each back to the fully body. 

2- At least twice each year, the City Council should invite the Superintendent of Schools to meet with them to share his plans for the public schools. This meeting will also give each councilmember the opportunity to make suggestions to the Superintendent on how things may be improved. 

The city councilmember and school board representative in each district were elected by the same voters. The voters expected both people to do their statutory jobs and to work together to make Richmond become the best city it can become. It is time for these 18 people to forget blame and personalities and get on with the business of the City of Richmond.

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