School funding

Students, parents, teachers and community members gather for a rally to support funding of schools budget request in front of Richmond City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016.

Public officials and education advocates in Richmond have fresh — and extremely unpleasant — memories of the long budget battle that unfolded in May.

The process played out over three consecutive days of City Council deliberations, included multiple rallies and marches in and around City Hall, and culminated in 76 parents, teachers and students lining up at a final hearing to plead for more cash.

In an effort to avoid a repeat next year, a loose coalition of school administrators, City Council members and supporters of the school system is pushing to take action now.

Their proposal? Bring some order to the chaos by setting a formula by which local school funding will be set. They hold up Roanoke, which has resolved to dedicate 40 percent of its local tax revenues to schools annually, as an example to emulate.

As tax revenues grow, then so does school funding.

“It would change the dynamic of what happens every budget season,” Richmond schools Superintendent Dana Bedden said. “Right now, it’s almost like being in a shark tank every budget season; it’s just not a healthy environment.”

The way the process currently works lends itself to a game of budgetary chicken between school and city leaders: The school system asks for more money than it’s likely to get and warns of politically unpopular outcomes such as school closures if the request isn’t met.

The mayor’s office provides its own, usually much lower, budget proposal for schools. Last year, it was flat funding.

Then the fight plays out: The school system and its supporters plead for the City Council, which has the final say, to increase the mayor’s number. The whole time, city administrators warn the council that there is no way to do that without crippling the city’s ability to perform basic functions such as mowing grass on city property.

Several tense weeks later, the school system usually ends up with a lot less than it sought but somewhat more than what the mayor’s office initially proposed.

With a set school funding formula in place, Bedden and others say, the process no longer would pit city departments against one another: The school system would be able to develop its budgets with the same local tax revenue estimates that city officials use to prepare the overall budget.

And in years where the school system has a special request or need, administrators still can ask for additional money but would do so in a way that makes clear that what they’re seeking is over and above what’s typical, giving them an opportunity to explain the request better and what it might accomplish and making it easier for the council to approve or reject the request.

“The whole thought process is that it promotes better planning,” Bedden said.

There appears to be across-the-board agreement that implementing some kind of local funding formula would smooth the process and ultimately be good for the city and the school system.

Less certain is whether it can be put in place in time to shape the coming year’s budgeting process.

City administrators begin behind-the-scenes work on the budget next month. A funding formula would need to be put in place by the end of the year — that is, before the Nov. 8 elections — to shape the process.

Richmond Forward, a group that advocates on behalf of the school system and was active in this spring’s budget battle, is pushing for a commitment from City Council members to take action.

Garet Prior, a leader with the group, appeared at a recent City Council meeting and asked members to set a date for a public hearing on the issue.

“We would like a timeline from the City Council or city administration for a solution to dedicated school funding,” he said. “We’re basically going to push for an answer in one way or another.”

Prior distributed a piece of paper to each council member asking them to check yes or no to indicate whether they support scheduling such a meeting.

So far, he said, he’s gotten responses from two council members: Parker C. Agelasto and Jonathan T. Baliles.

Baliles, who is running for mayor, has submitted legislation that proposes a variety of ways the city might dedicate a set percentage of tax revenues to schools.

His proposals, however, still are fluid. He said he plans to amend them to resemble more closely the Roanoke model.

Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson sits on the council’s finance committee. At a recent meeting where Baliles’ proposals came up, she balked at taking any action and instead pushed for more behind-the-scenes discussion before taking up the idea publicly.

She said she, too, supports implementing some kind of formula.

But she’s less adamant that immediate action is the right course. She said more work needs to be done to identify exactly what the funding formula should look like.

“Would it include capital projects? Would it include any adjustments over a two- or three-year period of time if we go into an economic slump? Does it include all of the other city services that the city provides for schools, like, do we continue cutting their grass?” she said. “I don’t know what’s in the formula.”

Baliles said those are the questions that officials are working now to answer, and that getting those answers shouldn’t take long.

“The idea is not hard, because we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Baliles said. “We’re copying what another city has done. The question is: Do we have the political will to do it?”

noliver@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6580

Twitter: @nedoliver

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