The Richmond School Board, facing a $7.6 million budget gap, voted Tuesday night to spend what money it has bolstering the schools' academic needs – while crossing its fingers that money freed up by turnover and vacancies will help cover the remaining shortfall.
Teachers will get their 1.5 percent pay raise, plus three additional professional development days. Eleven new English as a Second Language positions will be created. Kindergarten through third grade class sizes will be reduced, and Binford Middle School’s planned fine arts and college readiness program will get its funding.
Cut to save money: the budget for a larger in-house technology staff and software, special education staff and transportation for students with special needs, and a catch-all category for positions in the district that help “maintain current service levels.” The vote also trimmed the Richmond Public Schools (RPS) auditing department’s allocation, as well as constituent service funds for board members to do outreach within their districts. The cuts total about $3.6 million.
Tuesday night’s vote left board members trying to figure out how to pay for more than $4 million worth of expected costs. For now, they are counting on potential, but not at all certain, savings from turnovers and vacancies to cover the gap. Last year, the district used money from turnovers to pay for $3.3 million in unbudgeted costs.
Ralph Westbay, RPS’ assistant superintendent for financial services, warned that was a risky strategy.
“We’re living on borrowed time,” Westbay told the board.
The three-hour meeting at City Hall closed with an 8-1 vote. Glen Sturtevant, 1st District, voted "no" after making several failed attempts to persuade fellow board members to fund a 2 percent raise for teachers.
Much discussion hinged on whether to cut pay increases and/or professional development days for teachers, which would have saved the district about $2.5 million, but board member Jeff Bourne, 3rd District, said that would harm plans for academic improvement in the schools.
“We’re going to be judged by academic progress,” he says.
In January, the board adopted Superintendent Dana Bedden’s academic improvement plan, which asked for a significant increase in funding from the previous fiscal year. Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ budget proposal, delivered to City Council in March, increased the school’s operating funds slightly, but left a $24 million gap. Earlier this month, City Council allocated an additional $9 million to RPS by eliminating vacant city jobs. At a joint meeting between the School Board and City Council held earlier Tuesday, council members stressed the need for measurable academic progress.
During the deliberations, Bedden expressed concern about the board not balancing the budget. “The idea of going downstairs and saying we overspent our budget … that’s what makes me nervous [about this],” he says.