City Council continues talks on school funding

Jeremy Lazarus | 4/29/2016, 7:05 a.m.
Richmond City Council appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place as it seeks to craft a ...
Marchers cross the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge on Monday en route to a rally outside Richmond City Hall seeking more money for Richmond Public Schools. Photo by Joey Matthews

Richmond City Council appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place as it seeks to craft a balanced $709 million operating budget that would become effective July 1.

On one side are passionate supporters of Richmond’s public schools who want the council to shift more local tax dollars into public education to avoid the potential shutdown of Armstrong High School and four elementary schools. Find the money, they say.

On the other side is a city administration led by Mayor Dwight C. Jones warning that cutting any more money could cause disruptions of city services and deeper financial problems.

Overhanging the budget talks — and adding to the council’s angst — are projections of a deficit of between $6 million and $9.6 million in the current budget and concerns that additional slashes by the council could ensure that expenses exceed revenues in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“We are doing everything we can, but we have not been able to close the gap,” the city’s chief administrative officer, Selena Cuffee-Glenn, disclosed Monday. She reiterated that she plans to work with the council to consider options to end the year in balance, as state law requires.

On Thursday, April 28, the nine council members are to gather for another attempt to reach a consensus on changes to the mayor’s proposed 2017-2018 operating and capital budgets, mostly to increase school funding.

Providing even a portion of the $18 million that the Richmond School Board is demanding, though, is proving stressful — with a May 15 deadline looming to approve the education portion of the new city budget.

Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, 5th District, offered a reality check to school supporters during Monday night’s council meeting, telling them that the best the schools can expect is $4.97 million in additional funds, an amount that he and five other members support and that would be aimed at improving teacher pay.

Still, at this point, the council has been unable to reach agreement on possible cuts or revenue enhancements to provide that money. For example, only two members so far want to impose a 60-cent tax on cigarettes to raise a projected $5 million. Richmond is the only city in Virginia that does not tax smokes.

The stress that council members are feeling in finding extra dollars seemed to boil over during the public comment period. Council members started verbally pushing back when school supporters accused them of not caring. Several speakers insisted the city has plenty of money and only has to make adjustments to provide the public schools with $18 million more.

Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell, 8th District, fired back that it was insulting that anyone would believe that City Council is deliberately ignoring the educational needs of city children. She cited her proposal to provide new funding to reopen the now vacant Summer Hill Elementary School to provide relief from overcrowding in South Side schools.

Ms. Trammell claimed the School Board and its top officials are not providing the council with accurate information about the money it receives, creating mistrust and frustration.