Facing a likely $18 million shortfall for the upcoming school year, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden delivered in his annual “State of RPS” address an urgent call to fully fund the school system’s proposed budget.
A capacity crowd of administrators, teachers, parents and community members attended the superintendent’s speech in the Maggie Walker Regional Governor’s school auditorium on Thursday night. He focused mainly on the school system’s academic performance gains and programmatic shifts during his tenure, as well as his vision for it moving forward.
Bedden first broached the school system’s budget situation 15 minutes into the speech by saying the upcoming year was shaping up to be the second year in a row his academic improvement plan did not receive full funding.
“This could also be the second straight year our teachers go without a raise, losing ground to our direct competitors based upon recent reports of the surrounding jurisdictions fully funding education and providing pay raises,” Bedden said.
The need to retain qualified and highly effective teachers, one of the superintendent’s well-worn phrases, is dire considering the makeup of the division’s student body: three out of four students receive free- or reduced-price lunch, a marker of poverty.
Later in the speech, he made a more pointed pitch.
Under his watch, Bedden said, RPS has complied with several council-mandated requests. It developed plans for improving test scores and overhauling facilities, promoted more transparent finances, increased parental engagement and has undergone extensive audits and reviews.
“In fact, if you look at the recent history of RPS, you might find that we may be the most audited, reviewed and studied agency in the city,” Bedden said. The auditorium whooped with laugher and cheers of approval.
Then came the kicker.
“I agree that leaf and snow removal are important services; however, in my most humble voice, I ask is it more important than our children?” the superintendent said. “And why does it have to be one or the other?”
Given the context of the school system’s financial outlook, the line was Bedden’s sharpest of the night.
Last week, Mayor Dwight C. Jones unveiled his proposed budget for the upcoming year. It included flat funding for schools, and a claim that to fulfill what Bedden’s administration and the School Board said they needed, the city would have to slash its workforce and furlough employees.
On Monday night, Bedden’s administration introduced a plan to balance the budget. It included the closure of six schools the division had planned to shutter in the coming years as part of its long-term facilities plan.
Prior to Bedden’s speech, School Board chairman Jeff Bourne said that plan would have to accelerate if City Council doesn’t allocate the school system more money. Moving forward, Bourne said, rethinking the discussion around school funding may make City Council's decision easier.
“Investment in public education is not a schools' issue,” Bourne said. “It is a city issue. It is a Richmond issue.”