By Andrew Armstrong
As a 20-year resident of the city of Richmond, a career educator, a student of public policy, and a parent of three school-aged children, I continue to be puzzled by what appears to be a blatant disregard by elected officials, division administrators, and the media of critical data that should be the centerpiece of the larger current dialogue on the state of Richmond Public Schools and the search for a superintendent.
I applaud Mayor Levar Stoney for engaging city departments, the City Council, and the School Board through his recent education compact. Contrary to those who have criticized this initiative, I encourage Mayor Stoney to not only persevere in this effort but to expand it to include regional educational partners and participants from the many businesses and corporations that call the city of Richmond home.
The status quo in Richmond Public Schools, as many residents will tell you, is the greatest obstacle to Richmond’s realization of its potential as an emerging city blessed with an influx of young energy and enviable natural attractions. The status quo of Richmond Public Schools impedes the progress of our entire metro area, and most importantly, hurts the children of Richmond.
The bold strokes required to change RPS will require regional effort, accountability and an unwavering commitment by both the School Board and City Council to put personal politics aside and support what is best for kids.
It requires neither an educational expert nor a highly paid consultant to identify the low-hanging fruit of the RPS tree of dysfunction.
Just take a look online at the Virginia Department of Education school quality profiles, and you will see that Richmond Public Schools serves just under 25,000 students in 44 school facilities. Each of these facilities employs a dedicated staff of teachers, administrators, support staff, custodians, and food service workers — and incurs the operational costs of utilities, transportation, and the complex programming that makes a public school run every day.
Compare the ratio of Richmond’s 25,000 students served in 44 facilities to neighboring divisions. Chesterfield: 60,000 students in 61 facilities; Hanover: 18,000 students in 23 facilities; Henrico: 51,500 students in 67 facilities.
In a nutshell, Richmond Public Schools are inefficient on a grand scale. It was no surprise to see that RPS received a zero in the “evidence-based capital improvement plan” criteria of VDOE’s comprehensive review.
Imagine the savings to be gained through consolidating RPS facilities and eliminating duplicative services, salaries, and maintenance scattered among dozens of aging and dramatically underpopulated schools. The potential reinvestment opportunities of those savings and the potential revenue generated through property sales could fund a reasonable number of fully renovated or brand new facilities.
Many may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which states that before we can fulfill our potential and forge meaningful relationships we need food, air, water, and safety. Public schools are no different: without a safe and comfortable facility, teaching and learning will be impossible to achieve, and the current state of affairs in RPS illustrates the point.
To those who see this data and revert to the typical defense of the division — that its underachievement is due to a large proportion of students in poverty, that sufficient funding is not provided — see our neighbors to the southeast in the city of Norfolk.
Norfolk Public Schools serve 31,500 students in 45 schools — nearly an identical number of facilities as RPS but for 6,000 more students. And to the argument about the high proportion of Richmond students in poverty? Norfolk serves a student population consisting of 63 percent economically disadvantaged students. Richmond? 64 percent.
To top it off, Norfolk Schools are currently 51 percent fully accredited, compared to 39 percent as of 2016 in Richmond.
For the School Board of Richmond, tackling the challenge of creating a meaningful long-term capital improvement plan based on what is best for kids while responsibly and efficiently utilizing taxpayer dollars in a city which happens to have the highest real estate tax rate in the region — $1.20 per every $100 dollars of assessed property value, nearly one-third higher than the tax rate in neighboring Henrico and Hanover — will require exceptionally strong will.
Facilities may close, jobs may be lost. But the primary mission of any public school division should not be to employ adults, but rather to educate children. If the School Board is not willing to make this the priority, then the selection of a superintendent is an empty gesture. No quality candidate for superintendent committed to meaningful change would even consider taking on the challenge of RPS without confidence that the School Board will support him or her when making the tough decisions that will be necessary to improve the city’s schools.
The problems of Richmond Public Schools are undoubtedly complex, but we — citizens, elected officials, and school employees — can work together to secure some meaningful progress in a relatively short amount of time to create a foundation for sustainable improvement.
According to School Board Chair Dawn Page, she “cannot recall” the reasons for RPS’ failure to create a vision statement for its expired strategic plan. I am certain that a team from one of the many Fortune 500 corporations with offices in Richmond would gladly spend a day with the board and division leadership team to help create what is universally accepted as one of the first and most important steps in charting a direction for any organization, in the form of the mission, vision, and strategic plan.
Right now there apparently is no plan. So roll up your sleeves, RPS. Ask for help. It is there, it is willing, and we all need it.