The Richmond City Council closed out its long-running budget negotiations Tuesday, agreeing to give the city’s school system an additional $9.5 million in operating and capital funds over the $280 million Mayor Dwight C. Jones proposed in his initial funding plan.
But it wasn’t immediately clear whether the additional cash will head off the closure of five schools, including Armstrong High School — a step school administrators said would be necessary if their funding requests weren’t met.
“The School Board would take that up as soon as the vote is finalized,” said School Board Chairman Jeff M. Bourne. “I’m hesitant to say one way or the other what impact it has on any cost-saving or efficiency recommendations we’ve received.”
The agreement the council informally reached Tuesday followed roughly 12 hours of debate over two days. It still needs to be drafted into a series of ordinances, which will be introduced and advertised to the public later this week.
A public hearing and final vote on the budget is scheduled for Friday, May 13, at 6 p.m.
This year, the schools had asked for an $18 million increase in operating funds and $40 million in capital funds.
Jones’ proposed operating budget provided flat funding for the district. The council’s plan would increase that by $5.5 million, which is about $600,000 more than the district says it needs to give raises to longtime teachers whose salaries stagnated during the recession. At the request of Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell, $200,000 of that was set aside to reopen Summer Hill Elementary in South Richmond.
The council plans to provide another $4 million increase in capital funds to pay for maintenance of the district’s ailing buildings. The council moved the money from a community center planned for Highland Park, bringing the district’s total capital funding for the year to $9 million.
Bourne said he appreciated the council’s efforts to find more funds for schools, but noted the school system still faces a large gap between its budget request and the final appropriation council agreed to Tuesday.
“The board and the administration of (Richmond Public Schools) — we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Superintendent Dana T. Bedden made clear some budget cuts will still be necessary, though he didn’t specifically cite closing schools.
“As a result of the limited funds, my fiduciary responsibilities will require me to recommend that the board take the necessary action to address the structural deficiencies in our budget or risk overspending in the future,” he said.
In addition to boosting funding for schools, the council’s operating budget compromise also gives:
- $310,000 to public works to hire additional seasonal employees;
- $340,000 to fire and emergency services to give salary increases to employees inadvertently left out of a raise last year; and
- $100,000 for Venture Richmond, which brings the nonprofit’s total city funding to $600,000.
The council decided against restoring funding to area nonprofits such as Sports Backers and the Better Housing Coalition, whose budgets were cut by 25 percent under Jones’ proposal.
On the capital side, the only major changes in addition to schools is the addition of $300,000 for the T. Tyler Potterfield memorial pedestrian bridge over the James River, sidewalk and streetscape improvements along the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor in South Richmond, and flood mitigation in Battery Park.
Otherwise, the council left much of Jones’ budget intact.
City administrators repeatedly argued against cuts to any city departments, saying taking away any money would be disastrous at a time when the city is already struggling to deliver basic services.
For the most part, the council went along with the administration’s recommendations, cutting operating funds from only one department: $250,000 from the Richmond Ambulance Authority.
Instead, all the additional funding used to boost schools and other departments was found by council staff members and the mayor’s administration. The mayor’s office agreed to certify an additional $7.75 million in revenue, which will come from a combination of sources, including about $4 million from enhanced efforts to collect delinquent taxes.
The council eliminated one new revenue source proposed by Jones: an increase in the cost of some business licenses from $30 to $50.
Councilman Charles R. Samuels argued that the cost of doing business in the city is already higher than the surrounding counties and the proposed change would only make that worse.
The council left intact a slew of other fee increases proposed by Jones, which collectively increased city revenues by about $9 million. The budget maintains the city’s real estate and meals tax rates at their current levels.
As they closed out their at-times-tense deliberations, council members thanked the mayor’s administration for working with them to find more money for the school system.
“This shows what we can do when we all work together,” said City Council President Michelle Mosby.
In a statement sent out later, Jones struck a similar tone.
“Today’s actions represent progress,” he said. “I’m pleased that additional funds have not only been provided to schools, but also have been provided in other much needed areas like public works, police, fire, and finance.”