Richmond mayoral candidates yesterday
by James A. Bacon
A brief exchange in a debate between Richmond mayoral candidates yesterday revealed a striking blind spot among contenders that does not augur well for the city’s long-term fiscal integrity.
Former Del. Joseph D. Morrissey enlivened the discussion by criticizing Levar Stoney, former Secretary of the Commonwealth under Governor Terry McAuliffe, for the governor’s support of the controversial Stone Brewing Co. deal. In that deal the city enticed the West Coast brewing company to locate a brewery and restaurant in Richmond by means of $33 million in Economic Development Authority financing and $2 million in subsidies. The city should have put the money into its aging and decrepit schools, Morrissey said.
Stoney defended the deal, saying that it brought jobs and economic revitalization to the city’s impoverished Fulton Hill neighborhood. He in turn criticized Morrissey for not doing more as delegate for increasing school funding from the state.
City Council President Michelle Mosby noted that the bonds, backed by lease payments from the brewery, really didn’t take money from the schools at all.
In all the conversation, as described by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, no one questioned the idea that a lack of money is what ails the Richmond school system. The pitiful educational achievement of Richmond school children, low even when adjusted for the number of pupils from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, has many deep-rooted causes. I’ll focus on the issue that has gained the most attention to make my point.
Other than a few new school buildings, Richmond city schools are notorious for their poor condition. An 2014 article in Style Weekly started this way: “The ceilings at Thompson Middle School started oozing in the fall. Watery, foul-smelling drops of diluted tar fell into classrooms and hallways. The long, wet winter only made things worse. The ooze continues to creep. The staff does what it’s always done when the building starts showing its age: It copes. Custodians work late. Teachers rearrange desks. Buckets are put into place.”
The physical condition of the schools is a scandal. How can children be expected to learn in such an environment? Many have pointed to the age of the schools as the problem, suggesting that the answer is to spend tens of millions of dollars to tear down the worst ones and build new ones in their place.
The average age of Richmond school buildings dates back to 1955. That sounds old, but age is not the problem. My son just graduated from Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico County which opened in 1954. The architectural style is, to be charitable, institutional. Freeman just may be the dullest looking school building I have ever laid eyes on. But the interior appears to be in a state of good repair. The grounds are clean, the floors are waxed, and utilities function properly. Age isn’t the cause of Richmond’s decrepit schools. Maintenance, or lack of it, is the problem.
Some might respond that Henrico is an affluent school district that can afford to maintain its buildings while Richmond is poor and cannot. Well, according to Department of Education data, Richmond spent $13,087 per pupil while neighboring Henrico spent $9,250 for operations in the 2014-2015 school year.
OK, then, maybe Richmond has more poor kids with special needs who incur higher instructional costs at the expense of buildings and maintenance. Well, no, that’s not right either. Richmond expenditures for “operations and maintenance” were $1,185 that same year, considerably more than the $971 per pupil spent by Henrico.
Here’s the problem: Richmond spreads its operations & maintenance dollars over more schools (adjusted for enrollment) than does Henrico. The Richmond public schools website lists 42 elementary, middle and high schools and specialty facilities. Henrico, with twice the enrollment, lists only 69 schools. Despite having a lower operations & maintenance budget per pupil, Henrico spent more money per facility: $729,000 in 2014-2015 compared to $676,000 per facility in Richmond.
I presume that “operations & maintenance” includes the cost of heating, cooling, and lighting. Insofar as spending on utilities, which are necessary to maintain a learning environment, must come off the top of the budget, Richmond schools are left with even less for maintaining roofs, preventing leaks, repairing utility systems, and making routine repairs.
Thus, the root of the problem is that the Richmond School Board cannot muster the political will to consolidate its schools as rapidly as it should. (The board did vote last year to merge Thomas and Elkhardt middle schools.) Thus, the school district is not spending enough to properly maintain its facilities and, as a consequence, its oldest schools are falling apart.
Bacon’s bottom line: Instead of debating how to find more money for Richmond schools, perhaps mayoral candidates should be debating whether the school board could do a better job of spending the money it already has.
Update: Reader Larry Gross points out that major structural repairs to school buildings would be considered capital expenditures, not included in the “operations & maintenance” fund. Fair enough. Have Richmond schools allocated as much to this category as Henrico to keep up with depreciation? I don’t know. I doubt many of the mayoral candidates do either. But this is the kind of analysis we need before people talk about pumping more money into the school system.