As major budget decisions loom for the city’s leadership, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden made his case Tuesday night for greater investment in public education.
In his first formal “State of the Schools” address, Bedden praised RPS’ administrators, staff, teachers and students for overcoming challenges on a daily basis. He lauded signs of improvement, including test score gains, greater access to college entry tests and increased financial transparency. Bedden also appealed to members of City Council and Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who will decide how or whether the city will close a $24 million shortfall from the budget passed by the School Board.
Investing in schools, Bedden told the audience of several hundred administrators, teachers, parents and students at Virginia Union University, would align with the mayor’s agenda to reduce poverty, decrease crime, improve health care and stimulate economic development.
“Data and research provides evidence that [public education] is one, if not the No. 1 solution [to those issues],” Bedden says.
He spent little time talking directly about school finances, but told the crowd that 77 cents of every dollar budgeted to the school system is spent on instruction. RPS is operating with the same amount of city funding it had prior to the recession, with the same number of employees and 300 more students, all while getting $800 less per pupil from the state, Bedden says.
The superintendent outlined several performance markers for the next three years, including increasing the four-year graduation rate to 85 percent or higher, annual 10-percent reductions of the fail rate and increasing the number of state accredited schools. Last year, only 11 out of 45 RPS schools received full accreditation from the state.
Three out of four children who attend RPS, or about 17,000, receive free or reduced-price lunch, the district’s marker for poverty. The district also serves the largest population of special education students (4,000) of any district in the state. Both populations cost more to educate, Bedden says.
It’s a challenge the teachers and administrators at Armstrong High School are familiar with. At the East End school, one out of three students enrolled has special needs and eight out of 10 receive free or reduced lunch.
“We’re doing more with less. It’s a struggle. Our teachers are trying their best,” says April Hawkins, the high school’s principal.
Kristin Lee, a second-year teacher at the high school, says additional resources to purchase more laptops — and fix existing ones that are shared across the building — would benefit her students. Those laptops paired with learning modules and tutorials would benefit her ninth-grade students, who she observes are hesitant at times to ask for additional help.
Asked how Bedden’s improvement plan, if fully funded, would change her students’ classroom experience, she says, “The kids would be so much more enthused if they knew everyone was behind them.”
In March, Jones proposed $137 million in operating dollars and $13 million to address immediate maintenance needs. The mayor’s proposal left a $24 million shortfall from the statement of needs that Bedden submitted and the School Board approved. However, the mayor’s plan earmarked an additional $10 million if the schools can meet certain performance markers and reduce the number of empty seats in classrooms district-wide.
Several council members have submitted competing amendments to close the gap. Kristen Larson, the School Board’s vice chair, says she’s optimistic that City Council will allocate more money for RPS.
“What we want is to be fully funded. It’s what the board voted on. It’s what our schools need,” Larson says. “Some of the council people, all they put forth were school amendments. Schools are obviously a priority for them.”
City Council’s next full meeting is scheduled for Monday, May 11.