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Funding guidelines, old decisions hamper RPS, study finds

11/23/2016, 7:35 p.m.
Richmond Public Schools is stuck in a system of inefficiencies based largely on state and federal funding guidelines and operational ...

By Lauren Northington

Richmond Public Schools is stuck in a system of inefficiencies based largely on state and federal funding guidelines and operational decisions made years ago.

That’s the overarching finding of an independent budget analysis of the city school system that was presented Monday night at a town hall meeting at Virginia Union University.

More than 100 people crowded VUU’s Living and Learning Center for the hourlong meeting during which Lina Bankert, a partner at the Washington-based Bellwether Educational Partners, presented findings of the consulting group’s six-week study that show budget constraints have limited innovation in the city’s schools.

The chief issue, Ms. Bankert said, is that the state and federal governments, which partially fund each of the state’s 134 school districts, consider Richmond a “wealthy” city based on the city’s property values and the adjusted gross income of people who work in the city.

As a result of this high ability to pay rating, Ms. Bankert said, the city receives significantly less funding for city schools even though so many of its students are considered high need.

According to the study, in fiscal year 2016, the City of Richmond funded 41 percent of the RPS’ roughly $350 million operating budget, while the state provided 31 percent and the federal government 19 percent. The remaining 7 percent comes from Virginia sales tax allocated toward schools, according to the report. The report noted that 2 percent of the RPS budget comes from private donations and grants.

For fiscal years 2016 through 2018, the Virginia Department of Education determined the city should be able to fund 48 percent of the total RPS budget.

Comparatively, Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth city governments provide only 29, 28 and 25 percent, respectively, of the operating costs of public schools in those cities, which were considered by the consultants as peer school districts based on demographic similarities of students.

Additionally, state funding for city education has declined continuously in recent years, dropping from $136 million in the 2009 fiscal year to $123 million in the 2016 fiscal year, even though student enrollment has increased.

The fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

The bottom line, according to Richmond Schools Superintendent Dana T. Bedden, is that people who earn their money in Richmond and can afford to pay assessments or supplemental fees for education live in the surrounding counties.

“This is a challenge I’ve seen in every state in which I’ve worked,” Dr. Bedden said in response to the consultant’s finding.

“As the capital city, we have to try and get the people who work and bring commerce into the city to also live here and build our capacity as a school system,” he said.

The problem is that many people who work, play and do business in the city move to the counties to avoid sending their children to Richmond’s public schools, particularly once their children reach middle school, according to the study. What remains is largely students with high need in a school system with fewer resources, the consultants found.