$8.3M RPS mystery

Meeting next month between School Board, City Council and Mayor’s Office to see what happens next

3/24/2017, 6:16 p.m.
An $8.3 million surplus in the Richmond Public Schools’ budget that was disclosed during a recent Richmond City Council meeting ...

By Holly Rodriguez

An $8.3 million surplus in the Richmond Public Schools’ budget that was disclosed during a recent Richmond City Council meeting is nothing out of the ordinary, according to Richmond School Board Chair Dawn Page.

But the perception that the funds were hidden by top schools officials has spawned a meeting next month between the School Board, City Council and the Mayor’s Office.

“I have been in discussions with Kristen Larsen on City Council and Thad Williamson from the Mayor’s Office to set up a meeting with all our stakeholders,” said Jonathan Young, who represents the School Board’s 4th District. “My intent is to have a conversation about what happens next.”

Mr. Young said he anticipates the meeting will be held in early April, with hopes that it will foster better transparency by schools officials.

During a March 13 City Council meeting, RPS Superintendent Dana T. Bedden responded to a question from a council member and referred to the existence of $8.3 million in “unassigned funds” in the RPS budget — a line item unknown to the School Board members who all are new.

The disclosure surprised and angered parents, teachers and public school advocates who have been battling for several years to get more money for the public schools.

Many expressed their outrage Monday night during a public comment period at the School Board meeting, calling for greater transparency and for the School Board to hold Dr. Bedden accountable.

“We have issues with our schools, with special education, facilities … we are in shambles,” said Roderyck Bullock.

A flier circulated through the audience titled “What Can $8.3 million buy RPS’ children?” The flyer included pictures of Dr. Bedden and Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd, with the captions “Fraud, Waste, and Abuse,” and listed how many counselors, classroom teachers, bus drivers and aides could be hired with the millions sitting idly in the fund. It also included the hashtag #BOOTBEDDEN&BOYD.

Dr. Bedden sat through the comments but didn’t respond.

Dr. Bedden did not respond directly to the Free Press request for comment. However, RPS spokeswoman Kenita Bowers stated in an email Tuesday that the school system has had an unassigned fund balance dating back to 2011. It’s generated largely from savings from employee turnover and unfilled positions. And, Ms. Bowers said, it has ranged from $559,026 in 2012 to $8.3 million in the current 2016-17 budget.

Ms. Bowers also noted that RPS has reported the funds annually, as required by law, within the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, or CAFR.

The current report, dated June 30, 2016, is in draft format, making the $8.3 million an estimate, she said, because it cannot be certified until the city’s report is completed.

Even when the city’s report is completed, City Council’s approval is required for the funds to be used.

Ms. Page said the money could be used for one-time or emergency expenditures.

“The unfortunate part is the fact that it was not revealed and the impetus for the revelation was in a report to one of our most important partners, City Council, before the School Board was made aware of it,” Mr. Young said in a Free Press interview.