“I support RPS. I just don’t trust that the money will go where you say it’s going, or that you’ll use it effectively.” That’s the No. 1 critique I’ve heard over the past several weeks about the mayor’s FY20 budget proposal. Some of that distrust has its roots in biases about race and class — conscious or otherwise — that still grip Richmond. But some is grounded in our own missteps. For example, we haven’t always used our money well, and when investments have been made — whether public or philanthropic — it hasn’t always been clear what difference they’ve made. To those of you who distrust RPS for these reasons, I want to say as clearly as I can: I hear your frustration. We must do better and we will.
Since I came to Richmond a little more than a year ago, I’ve tried to demonstrate how seriously I take the public’s trust — particularly when it comes to money.
First, to address the very legitimate concern that more investment without a road map would be irresponsible, we spent several months working hand in hand with more than 3,000 stakeholders to draft a new five-year strategic plan, called Dreams4RPS. I invite you to read it at rvaschools.net.
Second, I’ve cut waste and stretched every dollar. For example, just this year, I cut $13 million (20 percent) from the central office budget. I’ve also asked our procurement team to renegotiate every contract over $1 million, our transportation team to auction off vehicles that are no longer in good working condition, our technology team to bulk purchase our computers for cheaper prices, our facilities team to explore performance-based energy contracts, and our academic team to streamline our expensive agreements with testing vendors.
We’ve also started a rezoning and facilities planning process that will maximize the use of our buildings, including potential consolidations and closures.
Third, I’ve attempted to honestly highlight where our system is broken — and then fix it. For example, I’ve often spoken about the 1980s-era HR software we use.
Given its limitations, we still use paper for many transactions. That’s absurd. It’s also costly. So we’re putting out an RFP for a modern system that will help us save money and provide better customer service.
Fourth, I’ve worked to create a central office culture based on one core principle: We exist to serve schools, not the other way around. Toward that end, we’re working to be much more responsive whenever the heat goes out, whenever a teacher has a benefits issue, whenever a parent has a question about her child’s grades, and whenever a custodian needs supplies.
Finally, we need to be accountable for results. That’s why we’ve outlined 10 key goals for the next five years and committed to publicly reporting on them in an annual scorecard. It’s also why we’ve begun to cut programs and positions that are not clearly adding value for our students and teachers, and why we’ve restructured the central office to better meet the needs of our schools.
Of course, we still have more work to do to rebuild trust with the public. That’s why I’m holding a “Trust Town Hall” on April 23, at 6 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. I’d like you to come — especially if you do not trust RPS. I want to hear every one of your concerns, discuss what we might be able to do to address them, and attempt to earn your trust.
In return I ask for four things. First, your grace. I’ve made mistakes and I’m certain I’ll make more. But I try every day to learn from them so I can do better for the students, families and staff of RPS. Second, your patience. We didn’t get where we are in one year, and we won’t turn things around in one. Third, your partnership. Rather than weaponize every misstep for the political fight of the day, let’s work together to solve the incredibly complex challenges we face.
And finally, I ask for your support of the mayor’s budget so we can begin the process of ensuring that every school, in every Richmond neighborhood, provides the world-class education that every parent wants for their children.