Mayor Dwight C. Jones on Friday morning rebuked Richmond City Council members who have put forth amendments to his budget proposal that would allocate additional funding for Richmond Public Schools.
At a press conference at City Hall, Jones said diverting more funds to Richmond Public Schools would harm other city departments, such as public works and public safety, and would further diminish the city’s ability to provide basic services in the upcoming year. The mayor reiterated that the school division was "held harmless" by his decision to keep funding flat in this coming year's budget. On the other hand, he said, other departments saw substantial cuts as a result of City Council's decision in last year's budget cycle to allocate $9 million additional dollars to schools.
“If we had more money, if I had more money, we’d certainly be willing to give it to them, but the money simply doesn’t exist and to find it would require taking that money from other critical services,” Jones said.
Jones presented his budget proposal to City Council last month. His proposal came after the Richmond School Board passed its proposed budget, asking for $18 million more in operational funding for the upcoming school year.
Council amendments to the mayor’s proposal were due Monday, but have not yet been released. However, several council members told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday that they had proposed allocating additional funds ranging from $5 million to $18 million to the school system.
Jones said Friday he had not seen the council amendments, but called on council members to release them “in the interest of transparency.” He insinuated that some amendments may be political posturing in advance of November's municipal elections. Two council members – Council President Michelle Mosby and West End Councilman Jon Baliles – have declared their candidacies for mayor. A third, North side Councilman Chris Hilbert, also has expressed interest in a mayoral bid.
“Let me say this, I know that this is an election year, and that means there will be a lot of promises made and people are under pressure to make promises,” Jones said. “But the test of leadership is not making promises. The test of leadership is actually accomplishing your goals in a responsible way.”
The RPS administration has proposed closing five schools and consolidating three more to save $3 million. Asked what his response was to that proposal, Jones said the schools “rightsizing” discussion has been unfolding for years. He cited 9,000 empty seats in schools system-wide, a figure RPS officials dispute based on the student-teacher ratio in classrooms. They say there are about 5,500 empty seats in the district.
“If there are empty seats in the school system … then right-sizing is a discussion that should be taking place, and not necessarily because they’re not getting the money that they want,” Jones said.
It is unclear how many empty seats the school closure proposal would eliminate.
Kim Gray, who represents Jackson Ward, Carver and part of the Fan on the School Board, said state cuts had hurt the school system and local funding hasn’t made up the difference. She and other board members have called on City Council to close the gap.
“We’re asking for $18 million. Is it realistic to expect the full amount? I don’t think so, but somewhere in the middle would be helpful for us to balance the budget and give our teachers the pay that they’re due.”