In just 15 days, Richmond’s children will be heading back to classrooms all across the city, and I wanted to take this time to address the funding needs that we’ve all heard about of late with respect to school facilities.
Education has been a priority for me since I took office, and it remains a priority. I believe that the investment we, as a city, make in our children is the best investment we can make. That’s why I’ve pushed for and built new schools, representing over $170 million dollars in investment – am building the first new high school in 40 years – and have increased the schools maintenance budget by nearly 700%. We’ve reduced capital funding in other areas to help with school needs.
I’m encouraged that we also have a Governor that wants to increase the focus on the education and general welfare of youth through 21 years of age. Last week, our Governor established a Children’s Cabinet. The initiative, in part, is meant to address students in high poverty, low-achieving school districts, and I commend Governor McAuliffe for focusing on youth in our communities. We need the support.
The Governor’s announcement came only days after our own school district issued a preliminary report listing $35 million in repairs needed throughout Richmond City schools. In fact, for many months, when it comes to schools, the focus has been almost solely on fixing HVAC systems and roof repairs – with some even suggesting that a facilities gap is what leads to an achievement gap.
I agree that we need proper facilities within which to educate our children. And every maintenance request that we’ve received from Richmond Public Schools has been fully funded. In fact, my Administration has provided the largest increase of capital funding and maintenance funding in decades.
But I’m here today to say that we cannot address the issue of school maintenance in a silo, cut off from other issues that we face in our school system. Performance, enrollment, graduation and dropout rates have to be at the core of the discussion when it comes to doing the best we can for our children. We do a disservice to our taxpayers when we don’t take a comprehensive approach.
In the last few months the discussion about Richmond Public Schools has centered on the state of the facilities. The task force that issued the preliminary report last week did a good and necessary job of pointing out the needed repairs, and I commend them.
However, that task force, in its own report stated that many, if not most, of these issues were present in reports dating as far back as 2002. It’s clear that the neglect that is now being focused on is neglect that did not happen overnight, and it won’t be fixed overnight.
We also have to acknowledge that little attention has been given to the fact that changing demographics, population patterns, and program needs must be factored in. Also, the much needed conversation concerning right-sizing still has not taken place. As hard as it may be for the School Board to tackle these tough decisions, we’ve simply got to move past the tough obstacles to determine what is best for our students.
Enrollment in Richmond City Schools has steadily declined for four decades. Our school system is presently serving less than half of the students that we once served.
Enrollment in our schools has fallen, even as our population has grown. Now, Superintendent Bedden has done a great job in bringing to light the maintenance needs of the school system. He has also, thankfully, indicated that he wishes to initiate a citywide assessment of schools relative to demand. I want to underscore the urgency of conducting this study so that we will know where and when to invest scarce dollars.
This is the responsible thing to do before we can wisely invest our limited resources. And the matter of limited resources is not only a concern because of our dwindling or flat revenues in the city; the State just last week has asked us to brace for more cuts as well.
Fixing our schools has to be defined beyond improving buildings, and must include improved outcomes. If you only look to the schools that are brand new, for example, they have beautiful new facilities, and poor student performance. Two of the three new schools we have opened are on warning status with their accreditation.
In 2010, 100% of our Schools were accredited and held that status for the next three years. These are the same schools that are now being underscored for decades of neglect regarding maintenance repairs.
Presently, 30 of our 44 schools are in warning status with their accreditations, because of tougher test score standards. Richmond Public Schools has an on-time graduation rate of 76% - the lowest for all students in the state. We have a cohort drop-out rate of 17% - the highest in the state for all students.
The problems that our schools face go well beyond building maintenance repairs. I will not stand by any longer while the real discussion that needs to be highlighted goes ignored. I’ve heard numbers get thrown about ranging from $35 million, $100 million, to even $1 billion for repairs and modernization -- all while the city is running under-enrolled schools that are expensive to maintain and that are under performing.
Just a few months ago, there was talk about how at the middle school level, we have schools that average 400 to 600 fewer students per building than similar schools in the surrounding counties. In our high schools, we have 500 to 800 fewer students than in similar schools in the counties. It was said that the schools need a “true plan” for how to achieve economies of scale – but we have not seen any such plan.
With respect to improving student performance, a plan was submitted by the interim Superintendent in October of last year, but that plan came up short and did not meet School Board expectations. Since that time, we haven’t seen a plan addressing exactly HOW Richmond Public Schools will improve student performance.
I’ve expressed these concerns to Dr. Bedden, and I’m proposing a course of action that we can take together.
As Mayor, my job is to manage competing interests. As much as I wish the city had the revenue stream to write a check for all of our needs – things like putting more police officers and firefighters on the streets, maintaining an aging public infrastructure, developing our Riverfront, building a cycling infrastructure, paving streets, reducing poverty – but we simply don’t have the necessary resources to do everything that we’d like to do. With the school system suggesting that they may be asking for as much as $100 million in maintenance, we need to have a very serious conversation about the state of affairs before we are forced into having to raise taxes to cover those projected costs.
I want to be clear; I don’t want to raise taxes. I want to cut taxes. We already have the highest taxes in central Virginia, which hits everyone hard. But at the same time, I know that everyone wants a strong and sustainable school system. So it is imperative that we undertake the due diligence necessary to ensure that the money we do have and the money we will seek is invested wisely. We must be sure that we’ve explored all options for sharing the financial burden.
That is why I’ve begun reach out to business and finance experts to research and explore to the options available to address the needs. There are several things that need to be immediately explored so that by the next budget cycle we can act from an informed position.
1. We need to explore financing options that may be available to support our needs. These include:
- The use of third-party financing models like public-private partnerships and that can fund repairs while producing renewable energy and energy efficiency projects; the savings from which can repay the private company.
- The possible use of tax-exempt private activity bonds for the construction of school facilities that could be leased back to the school system.
- A look at available tax credits that can be utilized, at the state and federal level and a look at what changes ought to be sought to jump start the use of available tax credits; including also the possible advocacy of an entirely new education tax credit.
- Available borrowing options and the implications for the city’s general revenue fund and/or real estate tax rate.
- Possible use of capital leases whereby a private company would finance and build a school and lease it back to RPS, who would ultimately own it at the end of the lease period.
2. At the same time, the School Board must undertake the work to look at the growth areas, changing demographics, population patterns, and program needs to determine how many schools should remain operational in our system. This is what is needed in order for us to move forward together.
This issue of right-sizing is paramount in order to know where to invest our dollars. For example, we simply must know:
- what schools are no longer needed,
- where to build new schools,
- where are we faced with continued declining enrollment,
- what transportation strategies are needed,
- what are the housing trends,
- birth rates, etc.
There are many talented people invested in our city who can conduct this much-needed financial and operational review so that all aspects of this discussion will get the attention needed. Ideally, by the time we receive the School Board’s prioritized listing in November and we begin the process of developing our budget for the next fiscal year, we will have the data, plans and strategy we need to allocate funding appropriately and wisely.
Building a strong and sustainable school system is a top priority for the city. We all know that strong and vibrant neighborhoods come about, in part, because of strong schools that bring out the best in all our children. In the context of addressing poverty in our city, we’ve started the process of collaborating with schools through the use of our anti-poverty commission. I’ve been talking about the role of schools and the need for community centered schools. I get it! And my record shows that I’ve been walking the talk.
A few years ago, I said that we needed to stop celebrating mediocrity when it came to our schools. That we have got to let go of the mediocrity and embrace excellence. I don’t want the distraction of poor building maintenance to keep us from focusing on teaching our kids and maximizing the potential of every last child in the City of Richmond. I’m taking these steps to ensure that that doesn’t continue to happen.
I’d like to close with this. A few months ago, when I met with the students from Open High, I was moved by their passion to speak up for not just their own school conditions, but for students all across the city. There was one young lady who said that while the conditions at Open were good for an old building, that what they enjoyed most was what was happening inside their classroom. Let’s work to bring that experience to every school in the city of Richmond. Let’s work to enrich the inner experience, even as we improve the outer.