Blaming the Innocent and Exonerating the Guilty

Scuzzy girls' locker room in   Armstrong High. Who's responsible for inadequate maintenance?
Scuzzy girls’ locker room in Armstrong High. Who’s responsible for inadequate maintenance? (Photo credit: Style Weekly.)

by James A. Bacon

In the previous post, PeterG questioned the priority of “Richmond’s elite” of building a new baseball stadium for the Flying Squirrels over patching the city’s scandalously decrepit public schools. I share his skepticism that what the city really needs right now is a new stadium. However, I disagree with a core premise of his post, that “Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools.”

In FY 2009 the City of Richmond schools spent $13,601 per pupil. Henrico County spent $9,369. Chesterfield and Hanover spent slightly more per capita. In other words, “Richmond’s elite” spent 45% more per pupil on Richmond city students than on students in “affluent” Henrico County. (I rely upon outdated statistics because I simply did not have time this morning to search for more recent ones. The per-pupil spending gap has not changed significantly since then.)

A better question is why “Richmond’s elite” tolerates suburban schools receiving so few tax dollars compared to their city counterparts.

An unspoken assumption embedded in PeterG’s commentary is that the problem in Richmond schools is insufficient funds as opposed to a misallocation or mismanagement of  funds. Is the failure to budget sufficiently for basic maintenance in a school system that spent $13,600 per pupil in 2009 (and more today) the fault of “Richmond’s elite”… or the school administration?

One last thing: PeterG fails to take into account the considerable resources raised by Richmond-area philanthropists to supplement public dollars spent in the schools. The Communities in Schools program, for instance, locates resources from city social services and non-profit programs to help students coping with the dysfunctions of poverty — lining up  food, clothing, tutors, mental health counselors, health care, transportation, and occasionally even furniture for children’s homes. “Richmond’s elite” is actually very involved in helping poor, inner-city minority kids.

I’m not persuaded that gallivanting off to Tampa in search of the great Tiki bar will help Richmond junketeers discover anything terribly useful for Richmond — I do agree with Peter on that. The Chamber of Commerce’s annual visits seem to lack focus and rarely come back with insights that can be applied locally. Instead of visiting Tampa, perhaps the group should have traveled to New York City to see what difference the charter schools movement there is making for minority kids and assess the applicability of charter schools to Richmond. That’s the kind of bold, non-incremental thinking the city needs.

The region’s political and civic leaders probably do need a cattle prod to think more creatively about the region’s challenges. But blaming them for the sorry condition of city schools is really too much.

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18 responses to “Blaming the Innocent and Exonerating the Guilty”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    When in doubt, wonk! I won’t go into your inaccurate and over-the-top headline. But there is one big mistake you are making. Richmond TAXPAYERS are paying 45 percent more per capita, not the ELITE.

    It may well be that Richmond’s schools are badly mismanaged. That sure seems to be the case. But simply reaching into your “Wonkery for Conservatives” Word folder to show that rich, white suburbs are more efficient and cost-effective doesn’t cut the mustard when you compare things to a city where one out of every four residents is poor.

    Why not compare Richmond’s per capita figures with Montgomery County, Md. or Westchester County, NY or maybe Palm Beach, Fla.? It makes about as much sense.

    ALthough I do appreciate you agreeing with me about the Tampa trip and the irrelevance of the Flying Squirrels in the greater scheme of life, I find your knee jerk defense of the “elite” of Richmond and their feel-good programs entirely predictable.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “Richmond TAXPAYERS are paying 45 percent more per capita, not the ELITE.”

      Uhhhh …. no.

      The school funding formulae in Virginia shift billions upon billions of dollars per year from some jurisdictions to others. I am willing to bet an entire six pack of ice cold tall boy PBRs that the City of Richmond’s schools are a major beneficiary of funds above and beyond the funds raised through the taxation of residents in the City of Richmond.

  2. Peter’s post didn’t quite hit the mark, but it was definitely in the right ballpark. Richmond has a tradition of not caring about public schools, since middle class folks move to the counties and the upper class send their kids to private school. Even among folks that care about the city…I know a pastor who talks about transforming the city and homeschools his kids. How much more of an impact could his family have on the community if that energy was directed toward their local school?

    The middle and upper class citizens typically have a larger voice in politics, since they have the time to post on message boards and the like 😉 but since they don’t care, it’s allowed dysfunction to fester on the school board. I’m hugely encouraged by the new board and superintendent, since they actually seem both competent and independent of the city hall.

    A last though…the LovingRVA budget could easily put a new roof on Fairfield Elementary. Priorities…

  3. Breckinridge Avatar

    The trip to Tampa is a joke and the Times Dispatch editorial page is embarrassing itself with Babbitry. Not the first time. Indeed it is time for those same swells to spend some time touring their own decrepit schools, housing projects and other facilities. (Sometimes I drive by the Parks and Rec HQ and it looks like it hasn’t seen a maintenance truck since LBJ was president.)

    And as I said in response to Peter’s post, there is plenty of money. Taxes are not low in this city. Jim is right that the money is sufficient.

    The apathy is palpable. The divisions here are like canyons. The upper and upper middle classes (of all races) are safe in their havens and have their private schools and are oblivious to the despair, the decay and the destruction of generations going on around them. I claim no insight into solving the problem but the condition of the unsafe and unsightly schools is like an infection that finally produces a fever and cannot be ignored.

    Except I predict it will.

  4. what would be wonkery worth delving into – would be a more detailed comparison as to WHAT Richmond is spending it’s money on that Henrico, others are not.

    We could start with the locality comparison report at the State auditor site that shows the 5 classification categories.. administrative, instruction, operations, transportation, maintenance, (I think).

    that report is less useful than it used to be because it no longer shows the per capita average for the entire state nor the local tax rate.. and worse.. it’s only available as an excel download but someone good with excel could derive that info.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    How did my post “miss the mark?” Why wasn’t the comment posted on my actual blog?

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You are probably right about school funds being shifted from elsewhere, but my point stands that RICHMOND’s elite is not shouldering the burden onerously and that city taxpayers form every income level are indeed contributing.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Yep. That’s a fact. However, it’s also a fact that the City of Richmond spends a lot per student (especially when compared to neighboring localities like Henrico and Chesterfield). It’s hard to imagine why the Richmond city schools are in such bad physical shape. Sounds more like incompetence than fiscal starvation.

      1. and a reason for any Mayor of Richmond to make schools a priority.

        I have a hard time giving kudos for anything else if schools are not on the to do list.

        we need to also remember – the Mayor is one guy. If the voters and the elite do not care if he addresses schools or not – then like any politician, why stir up that hornets nest anyhow?

        why does it seem that the problem with urban core schools – lots of money, terrible buildings and worse academic performance is more common than rare?

        Richmond is about a .4 on the composite index.. many rural poor schools are .2 and schools like Fairfax .6 and .7.

        but I still object to the characterization that some schools are “taking money” from others because it’s a STATE sales tax for the state to use in providing equivalent education resources to every child no matter their demographic or geographic circumstance.

        this is a National Law. Different states accomplish it in different ways but the underlying law is the same that kids in poor counties will receive equal educational resources.

        and yes.. there is a problem with the actual spending of the money – like in places like Richmond. It’s an institutional culture and competence issue but anyone who essentially argues that some counties are taking from others on schools – and.. has no alternative approach to dealing with geographic disparities – seems to be arguing for abandonment of kids who through no fault of their own live in disadvantaged circumstances.

        How would you deal with that ? Is abandoning those kids by calling the disproportionate funding “wrong” an answer?

        every child that grows up educationally crippled is going to become an entitlement burden to you and your kids no matter where they live.

        we all have to make a choice on this. are we going to take financial responsibility to educate kids – so they can grow up and become self-supporting tax-paying citizens or are we going to not do that?

        the fact that we do – do it – but we do it grotesquely incompetently in some places, like Richmond is not a valid reason to essentially abandon all kids in poor circumstances – statewide especially in areas where many kids are helped and do get a decent education that otherwise they would not have gotten because of a lack of resources.

        The Local Composite Index is here:

        I don’t defend it as perfect or anything close to perfect but arguing black and white – that it’s wrong – period – do away with it – is not a rational solution-oriented viewpoint.. in my view of course.

  7. virginiagal2 Avatar

    Quick thoughts about the relative dollar figures – the city enrollment has been dropping, correct?

    Okay, bear with me for a sec – I’m thinking this through. General principles of cost accounting, as applied to students by someone who doesn’t do school budgeting but is reasonably familiar with budgeting in general.

    When you’re figuring up per unit costs, you have two major pieces to the cost equation. The first are fixed or inelastic costs, that are relatively static regardless of how many pupils you have. That would be like a superintendent of schools. The total cost is going to be the same regardless of the number of students, but the superintendent cost per student is going to vary depending on how many students you have. The cost per student is higher if you have fewer students. It’s lower if you have more students. The per student cost of that superintendent will go up if you have a decrease in enrollment. Think economy of scale.

    Second are variable costs, that tend to correlate closely with how many you have. For example, if you give each kid two pencils, your cost per pupil is going to be the cost of 2 pencils. You might get a change of pencil price above or below certain thresholds, but it won’t vary but so much.

    Okay, then the last part of the equation – the ones that aren’t completely fixed nor are they completely variable. Costs are often fixed up to a point, but as they increase or decrease a lot they can become variable, or fixed at a different level. Examples – if you have a school that loses enrollment, you still have the costs of the building and the principal. If it drops past a certain point, you might consolidate schools and then your cost threshold changes and is fixed at a different level. If you’re growing, you might use trailers, and that cost would be somewhat variable – but it would be “sticky”, in that you would have thresholds for each multiple of 25 or however many kids per trailer, but adding or losing 1 or 2 students wouldn’t change the threshold.

    So the cost of sending a kid to school is the sum of the fixed costs, the variable costs, and the “sort of fixed but at thresholds” costs, right?

    Okay, here’s where I’m going with this. If you have dropping enrollment, your fixed costs aren’t going to drop. Your total costs may drop, but if you have fixed costs like central office staff and school office and the cost of the physical schools and their operations, your cost per pupil is going to go up even if you’re being frugal and your total costs are going down. It’s the opposite of economy of scale.

    In looking at these numbers, to get a real handle on them, I’d want to get a look at old fixed costs and current inflexible costs.

    Also, you’re looking at significantly different demographics – Henrico and Chesterfield also have issues with their schools in poor areas. It isn’t just the city. If you are dealing with poor areas, how much more do they normally cost if you’re trying to do a good job? Are Henrico and Chesterfield spending more on those schools? Is it enough to get their kids to good achievement levels?

    I wouldn’t rule out waste and mismanagement, and you’d definitely want to look there. But I’d bet money that inflexible costs and different student populations are a big part of the difference between the per pupil costs between the city and the counties.

    1. I agree with the thinking with the exception that some central office positions can be dual or or tripled hatted in smaller schools (and are) whereas in bigger systems.. separate hats required.

      and waste .. all things considered.. is inherent in most systems unless a particular one is shown to have much higher than average waste …

      but we do have a way to compare and that is the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Local Government Comparative Reports at

      where you can compare other jurisdictions of similar student enrollment for things like administrative and instruction, maintenance and operational costs.

      to this point – have not heard where the increased costs are with the Richmond system – and that would be, in my mind, the first step needed to gain further insight into their costs and then why they are higher than other places.

  8. virginiagal2 Avatar

    “The Communities in Schools program, for instance, locates resources from city social services and non-profit programs to help students coping with the dysfunctions of poverty — lining up food, clothing, tutors, mental health counselors, health care, transportation, and occasionally even furniture for children’s homes. “Richmond’s elite” is actually very involved in helping poor, inner-city minority kids.”

    This looks like a wonderful program and one I would like to support. It doesn’t negate Peter’s point, though.

    I can’t recall having heard of the Communities in Schools program, even though it is the sort of thing I am interested in. I can’t recall the RTD doing a single feature on it, much less many, month after month. I don’t recall seeing it on the local tv news or hearing about it on the radio. (I do hear about the backpacks program from the oil change guy, who gets kudos from me.)

    You would have to be in a coma not to have heard about the baseball stadium, or the Redskins practice field, or the arts center.

    The mayor doesn’t issue weekly statements about Communities in Schools. We have not had a community forum organized by the RTD on Communities in Schools. It hasn’t been featured repeatedly on the front page and in the editorial page, month after month. I don’t remember seeing any high-profile fundraisers with big name donors and guests featured on the front page. It hasn’t had a whole vacant school swapped out to support funding it. No one has broken ground on facilities for it, or had corporate sponsors on the news.

    We took school money for the Redskins. Dan Snyder does not need city welfare.

    Our community will be living with the outcome of these kids’ education for the next eighty years or so. Isn’t that as important as a ball park, or a practice field, or an opera house?

    If yes, then why don’t we treat it that way? The oil change guy took up the backpacks program. Who in power has taken up Communities in Schools and is talking about it every day?

    I do not believe the city and region’s power structure is serious about improving city public schools. I am judging them by where they put their focus, their money, and their energy.

    1. re: ” Our community will be living with the outcome of these kids’ education for the next eighty years or so. Isn’t that as important as a ball park, or a practice field, or an opera house?”

      dead on correct and totally ignored or missed by those who think the way we fund education in Va is wrong or that kids who have bad parents deserve to not get a good education.

      this is like offering a kid either spinach or broccoli and he says “neither” except we’re dealing with adults and taxes.

    2. Virginiagal, I’m sure you’re very plugged into the community but just because you haven’t heard of it doesn’t mean Communities in Schools doesn’t have strong community support. Check out the financial contributors here. That’s a pretty good list of the Richmond establishment.

      1. virginiagal2 Avatar

        Jim, I doubt I’m nearly as plugged in as you, and I don’t doubt that CIS has strong support.

        BUT – as a regular interested-but-not-insider person, I can see who is pushing what publicly.

        Mark Smith (I had to look up his name) is really pushing FeedMore’s backpack program. I don’t have to pay attention to know that he supports it, because I hear about it all the time. It also took about ten seconds to find his name, because he’s been so public about supporting it. It’s a good cause – I give $ to FeedMore too.

        The RTD, the mayor, the various Richmond venture groups, all support the baseball stadium. I don’t have to pay attention to know this, because it’s right in my face.

        Communities in Schools does not get that level of support from the same people. They may support it in their heart, and that is a really good thing. But compared to the stadium, it is not getting publicity, or public bonds, or public forums, or vocal support from leaders in the community.

        What I’m saying is that we are not committing to kids in the region (there are poor kids and under-performing schools in the counties too, it’s not just the city) at the same level that we are committing to a privately owned sports business.

        I’m also saying that, in my own opinion, I think the region would benefit more from making sure every kid gets a good chance at a good education, rather than subsidizing privately owned sports teams.

  9. oops.. just checked and Richmond is one of the few places that has not reported so all of their numbers are “0” so scratch that idea.

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I read the cis donor list. Usual suspects. All very nice but why are the schools still such a mess?

    1. the elites should be taking care of the stadium deals and the Mayor the schools.

      even if he devotes himself to it.. it’s going to be more than he can totally fix in one term.. but he need to lay out a vision..

      I’m beginning to move to the camp that allows the state to take over schools that do not perform and block transparency.

      it disturbs me also that Richmond (as well as half dozen others including Stafford) have not provided the required budget data to the Virginia Auditors.. there needs to be painful consequences to jurisdictions that do that. Usually that happens to the poorer counties that have limited capabilities..

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