Improving Richmond Public Schools

This topic is not a new one for Richmond, but one that has taken on a new emphasis over the past 18 months. The new leadership of the City, from Mayor, City Council, School Board, and School Superintendent, is fully committed to making the necessary and required difficult decisions required to transform the performance and quality of our school system. From classroom scores to failing buildings, we have a multitude of priorities for which we must put in the right order to transform our public school system to meet the expectations of families and parents as we prepare our students for the 21st century work place.

Funding

Richmond is financially sound, but we need a revenue growth strategy. Our revenues are not increasing at the rate of our peer counties or with state averages. Even with Richmond’s vibrant housing market and being a hot destination for businesses, the City is not seeing the growth of our state limited revenue options that we should be. This is a key problem as it relates to funding school needs and the strategic investments necessary to create a modern public-school system. Slow growing revenues do not support the increase in available funding needed to improve school infrastructure for buildings and maintenance. Over 25% of our available $692 million in outstanding Capital Improvement debt (the funds we use for buildings and maintenance of streets, sidewalks, water and sewer infrastructure) is for schools. In order to increase the capital improvement funding available for new schools, renovations, and maintenance, our revenues must increase to cover this cost, which currently is slowly happening.

The City of Richmond needs a comprehensive revenue strategy that explores ways to maximize our limited revenue sources to their fullest capacity while finding innovative funding vehicles to address the needs of our school facilities. I believe we can do a lot without increasing taxes, but it is going to take rolling up our sleeves and all hands on deck.

I am not willing to make cuts to core city services, reduce our budget on city infrastructure, or sacrifice our financial strength. While we need to identify strategic ways to fund this dire need to improve our school facilities, we also need to look at how we are spending ever dollar currently.

Let’s take a look at our funding per pupil from 2016

http://www.doe.virginia.gov/statistics_reports/supts_annual_report/2015_16/table15.pdf

There are a couple numbers that stand out in this chart:

  1. Richmond’s local contribution is $2,256 & $1,244 more than our neighboring counties
  2. Federal contribution is $1,800 more per pupil
  3. State contribution, while higher, is comparable to Chesterfield and over $1,000 more than Henrico.
  4. Overall, Richmond spends $4,100+ per pupil

Given our higher spend per pupil and the current performance of our education system, the challenge before us is not simply a money issue, but a strategy issue about how to best utilize every dollar of our funding to prepare every child for a bright future.

One key attribute to our significantly higher local contribution is the fact that our high number of operational school facilities and the number of students served is considerably low. Richmond averages 493 students in our 44 school buildings, while Chesterfield has 63 schools supporting an average of 920 students per building and Henrico averages 703 students in their 72 schools. Why does this matter? Each school requires a multitude of staff and faculty needed to operate, which, in turn, increases our cost. If our budget average for facility maintenance is well below the State and national averages, then this is not a contribution to this number. Thus, there must be a staffing and operational budget impact that is driving up our costs, and efficiencies and justifications must be warranted for each expense at each school. (*If we were to identify a $500 reduction in Local Contribution per pupil, that would make $11 million available for school renovation, construction, maintenance and teacher compensation given our current fiscal budget allocation.)

The Federal contribution supports many of the challenges facing an unfortunately high number of students that live in poverty and face traumatic circumstances at home. The question remains about pursuing other national, state, and local grants and program funding that can stretch these dollars to support addressing the concerns facing many of our students. (*As someone that grew up in Virginia on Free School lunches my entire childhood, I understand the value and importance of this and other programs that provide for our student’s needs.)

The State funding is a key opportunity. While we receive more than our neighboring counties, given the challenges that we have faced over many years, the State and General Assembly must be a partner in supporting our plans to transform public education. The complex current formula that the State uses to distribute funds to Virginia school districts, rates the City of Richmond as wealthier than Henrico and Chesterfield County, which is not accurate. Currently, only 43% of our schools are fully accredited by the State of Virginia. In order to achieve 100% accredited schools, we must explore all and every possible way to address this issue, which includes lobbying for more State of Virginia support.

Options to support identifying funding to invest in our budget do exist without having to increase taxes, but its going to take some work.

  1. PILOT — payment in lieu of taxes is a calculated contribution for state and government agencies to make to the City of Richmond, however, the calculation for this amount is dated and has not changed in decades. For example, around 25% of Richmond’s available real estate is tax-exempt. VCU and its growing footprint do not pay a PILOT payment at all. We should leverage this issue to access VCU’s wealth of institutional resources to support our strategy, plans, and implementation for improving RPS.
  2. Collect what is outstanding — we are owed tens of millions of dollars in back taxes, delinquent real estate, and late business tax payments. We must go after every penny owed the city that is legally within our rights as a local government to collect.
  3. Devise a Comparative Revenue Strategy — Richmond is not alone in having limited revenue options and we should explore innovative options pursued and implemented by other cities across the state to levy additional or new revenues. This does not mean raising rates but making sure we are receiving everything we are owed.
  4. Leverage Private Equity — school districts across the country have used innovative financing options that capitalize on the buying power and efficiencies the private sector can bring to our operations.
  5. Non-departmental Budget — we allocate millions every year to non-profits and other organizations around the city for a multitude of purposes, but with this huge challenge before us, we must invest strategically to support quality education and opportunity for our children. We must align our spending with that of our corporate, philanthropic, and non-profit communities to comprehensively improve access in equity and inclusion for all students.

Quality of Education vs. Quality of Facilities

We must separate our two biggest issues and address their needs individually in order to prioritize them together. New school buildings do not equate to improved classroom performance, we must address both issues in their own accord to truly transform our education system.

Quality of Education Challenges

  1. Richmond is 12th in cost per pupil, yet near the bottom in overall test performance and the number of accredited schools. The call for more funding must be responded to by expressing how every new dollar currently spent and is planned to be spent, is going to address improving school performance.
  2. Classroom performance — we must support our teachers in the classroom with wrap-around services and programs for their students. No longer should we have to depend on teachers using their small salaries to purchase resources for their classroom, we must do more and do better.
  3. Teacher Performance/Compensation — Superintendent Jason Kamras has demonstrated visionary leadership to transform the classroom into a high performance center of education, which is why he stood out as the best candidate to lead RPS.
  4. Operational Efficiencies — as stated above, we must be accountable for every dollar expended in our RPS budget, especially our higher local contribution. There are efficiencies in the RPS budget that must be identified and addressed to support proposed changes and new approaches.
  5. Annual Metrics, Targets, & Goals — applying best practices to improve the quality of education must be measured and tracked. With each new program, initiative, and improvement we must see the Theory of Change that supports how this will impact performance. Evidence-based practices that express success in other school systems must validate the rationale for implementing in RPS. Understanding the future impact on staffing, whether, in new hires, training or other support is crucial to preparing for the long-term budget impact this investment may bring.

Quality Facilities

We must improve the buildings in which we educate our children as well as support our teachers. We do not need beautiful new buildings, we need functional and operationally focused facilities to support education. The 21st century economy has provided new approaches to how we educate children and we must not attempt to merely catch up, but to lead. Richmond has an incredible opportunity ahead of it right now, with our aging school infrastructure, we can transform our classrooms to support our children’s ability to learn and provide our teachers with the resources required to make the improvements needed to create a top performing school district. In order to take the next best step forward, is to capture the creative vision and experience of the private sector, construction professionals, and public finance professionals to devise a plan to make it all work. We need to explore options that include energy efficiency upgrades, performance contracting, historic tax credits, and other innovative programs and public-private partnerships. This will not only stretch every dollar, but create community built and supported quality classrooms.

We need a school facilities plan that capitalizes on the expertise, vision, and creativity of the private sector. One that explores every funding option, partnership opportunity, and transformative investment program available. Plans that include energy efficiency upgrades, performance contracting, historic tax credits, capitalizing on private equity, and other innovative and accountable partnerships. Together, we can make this work.

This plan must also include options for redistricting, consolidation, and school closing. School closing isn’t a popular or easy decision but given our challenges with the state of our current school buildings, building any new school building must explore ways to strengthen equitable access to quality education that maximize every dollar. It’s not a closing, but a consolidation to allow for a brand-new modern school building for more families. For example, we have five elementary schools in the Church Hill area alone. Combining resources, facilities, and staff to better serve these students can not only improve quality of education while providing cutting-edge modern facilities but also reduce our financial burden of operating five schools in an area where two or three facilities could adequately meet the needs for our students, teachers, and tax payers.

Closing

With a comprehensive plan to maximize our existing revenue sources, a strategic plan from RPS to transform our quality of education, and a collaborative and multi-year plan to update our facilities with public-private partnerships in combination with leveraged innovative funding sources, we can create a modernized education system. We can explore options to temporarily allow for increasing our debt capacity to fund this plan in conjunction with our new revenue strategy that can eventually remove the need for such a policy. We have a lot of work ahead of us to create an innovative, collaborative, and strategic multi-year plan to transform our public education system. This work is foundational for why I sought to serve on City Council and now is the time to deliver.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.