A Notion at Risk 

Just as students are preparing to take their SOLs, the Richmond School Board and the new schools superintendent are facing their own high-stakes test.

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"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief …
"None of them along the line know what any of it is worth …
"But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
— Bob Dylan

I don't know about you, folks, but I've had more than enough of the annual blame-ass politics of the City of Richmond vs. Richmond Public Schools Budget Battle.

Given that the most recent Standards of Learning scores show Richmond's pass rate in reading is the worst of the 132 school divisions in Virginia and fourth from the bottom in math, it would behoove school and city officials to focus on what's needed to improve the quality of education in the classroom. Honestly, Petersburg beat Richmond in reading and math.

But instead of focusing on the classroom, we have elected officials pointing fingers at one another and arguing about brick-and-mortar issues. We have a mayor who purports to want a top-tier school system, but is only willing to fund the mediocre status quo and isn't much interested in fixing leaky roofs.

We have seven (relatively) new School Board members and a brand new school superintendent desperately trying to reform the school system and rally community support for more money, but failing to say exactly how this new money would help educate our children or help us understand where the money is actually going.

Data on the Virginia Department of Education and on my number-crunching colleague John R. Butcher's "Cranky Taxpayer" website show that the Richmond Public Schools received more than a quarter of a billion dollars last year, with the district's per-pupil costs for 2012 coming in at $15,090.

All of which raises the question: Just how much money do the Richmond Public Schools need to continue failing to deliver a quality education to the city's children?

Consequently, it's easy to understand why members of Richmond City Council and the mayor's office don't appear ready to hand over more money to the schools.

Still, enough is enough. It is morally insulting that with a school system so clearly in crisis, the mayor and City Council can find money to build a new jail and a state-of-the-art football training facility for the Washington Redskins, to be used three weeks a year. Mayor Dwight C. Jones is now trying to finagle council members into letting him use our tax dollars to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

Meanwhile, school officials and citizens plead poor mouth, pass around petitions and literally beg for enough money to fix leaky roofs and provide minimal maintenance of schools facilities.

A draft copy of an audit of the Richmond Public Schools' procurement and purchasing departments — conducted by City Auditor Umesh Dalal's office and requested by School Board members shortly after they took office — probably won't help the beleaguered schools this budget cycle (see page 5).

But it could prove valuable in future budget negotiations. That is, if the School Board and Superintendent Dana Bedden will take the time to implement Dalal's recommendations and ask the difficult follow-up questions of school administrators.

The findings show a pattern of stubborn and repetitive waste of precious resources and an overall lack of knowledge of where the money goes. But the single most important issue the audit raises concerns possible violations of the Virginia Public Procurement Act.

The audit's findings and recommendations, provided by a Richmond Public Schools source, are to be presented to the School Board next month. At that time, the document the board receives will include management's responses to Dalal's recommendations.

Seriously, when an experienced auditor of Dalal's competence and character recommends that the School Board members and superintendent "seek a second legal opinion on the legality of the current scoring process used to select vendors" and questions the ability of the board's highly paid attorneys to understand a fundamental legal case, School Board members Jeff Bourne and Glenn Sturtevant, both lawyers, might take note and find out what he means.

In April 2008, the city auditor released a report that found a further $6.7 million of waste in the school system's purchasing and accounts payable operation. A December 2008 audit concluded that the fleet maintenance contract lacked provisions allowing the district to make necessary cost-control and other operational decisions. A February 2009 audit contains a four-page list of deficiencies in the schools' information technology program, including an absence of monitoring procedures that would ensure the Richmond Public Schools were receiving proper value for their IT budget. An August 2009 audit of grants administration found that the lack of proper monitoring of grants poses a "major risk."

More's the pity then that this most recent audit of the Richmond Public Schools' purchasing and procurement departments shows that many of the existing problems have been known for at least six years.

Yup, you read that right. It's been six years since school officials were first told of ways they could easily save money. And while there's been incremental improvement on issues raised in prior audits, the overall lack of knowledge and compliance with their own policies remains shocking and shameful.

Just as surely as students are preparing to take their Standards of Learning tests in the next few weeks, the members of the Richmond School Board and the new superintendent face a high-stakes test of their own.

How they respond to Dalal's soon-to-be-released report will reveal how serious they really are about bringing transparency, accountability and academic excellence to a school system that's long been known for its failure to deliver sustained progress academically and its maddening inability to keep track of the money it spends. S

Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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