School Budget Rumble Begins 

Mayor's task force takes first stab at contentious school budget.

The first meeting of the mayor’s school budget task force proves one thing: This ain’t gonna be easy.

The Richmond school system is staring at a $23.8 million budget gap, and Mayor Dwight C. Jones says the city won’t kick in the money. Instead he’s appointed 10 people with education or business experience to figure out a solution.

At Monday’s meeting, the School Board chairwoman, Dawn Page, tells the task force that the board already has cut the schools’ budget by $50 million in the last five years. Page says the board’s excited to see what solutions the task force will come up with.

She doesn’t sound excited. “We want to cooperate, and we will fully cooperate,” she says.

The school system serves 24,000 children from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Reflecting the city’s high poverty rate, 70 percent receive free or reduced-price school lunches and 20 percent are in special-education programs -- the highest percentage in the region.

“I personally believe that we are the largest anti-poverty initiative in the city of Richmond,” says Maurice Henderson, vice-chairman of the School Board. That’s why the school system is focused on reducing already small class sizes and offering small neighborhood schools, he says.

But initiatives like these also are why the city, compared with nine similar school districts across the state, spends the most per pupil -- $13,103. With rising health care and retirement system costs, and less money being doled out by the state, the only options left for the Richmond schools are cutting programs, staff and salaries. “I mean, I want you to tell me something we haven’t thought about,” Henderson challenges the task force.

Member Ron Tillett, managing director of investment banking for Morgan Keegan, obliges. He suggests the school budget start from scratch, based on “not what you feel is important to do … but back up to what do we have to do by law.”

But the state’s education mandates, the standards of quality, are outdated and irrelevant, school officials say. “We’ve moved beyond that minimum level,” Henderson says.

“This is going to be a pretty contentious process,” says James W. Dyke, chairman of the task force. Budget cuts must be made by mid-April, when the school system finalizes its teacher contracts for the coming year.

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