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Richmond School Advocates See a Different Kind of Budget Showdown Ahead 

click to enlarge A teacher at Fox Elementary School, Keri Treadway, co-founded Support Richmond Public Schools, one of a coalition of groups engaged in the school budget process.

Scott Elmquist

A teacher at Fox Elementary School, Keri Treadway, co-founded Support Richmond Public Schools, one of a coalition of groups engaged in the school budget process.

It might not be frictionless, but the Richmond School Board and its advocates say they aren’t anticipating the same raucous — and politically painful — rallies that have come to mark budget years.

“This is the first time I really feel a shift, and I’m cautiously optimistic about where we’re going,” says Keri Treadway, who’s worked in Richmond for 14 years and co-founded Support Richmond Public Schools.

The group was instrumental in pressuring the former mayor, Dwight C. Jones, on the issue last year. But things seem different now, Treadway says: “This is the first time we’ve had anybody talk about education in a positive way, not just putting blame on Richmond Public Schools.”

With a complete turnover in School Board members, several new city councilmen and a new mayor, there’s plenty of collegial goodwill to go around — a sea change from the final years of the last administration.

That’s not to say such schools advocates as Treadway are backing away. They were on hand at City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 21, when it looked like things might have gotten too cozy between Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration and the School Board.

As part of talks with the board members and City Council, Stoney’s administration informed the school district up front of how much additional money it was likely to receive from the mayor’s office.

Stoney was willing to provide about $6.1 million more to address two issues related to teacher pay. Hearing that, board members expressed an interest in limiting their budget request to that amount, in a kind of goodwill gesture to the administration.

Such advance coordination is common in the surrounding counties, says Donald Wilms, the president of the Chesterfield Education Association, which represents county teachers. “Because counties tend to be more conservative,” he says, “the school board is less likely to take on supervisors over funding.”

There’s always more that schools could ask for, Wilms adds. But the school board and superintendent seem to know in advance what the Board of Supervisors will give, and tailor their request to that figure.

Things traditionally go differently in Richmond, with negotiations often leading to strife and ill-will among the governing bodies.

Superintendent Dana Bedden asks for a number he knows will be cut. The School Board asks for a lower number that it also knows will be cut. The mayor and City Council and the public fight over those cuts.

Nonetheless, advocates for the school system said that they think it’s important for the district to offer an honest picture of its financial needs.

On top of that, Treadway reminded the School Board that Virginia code requires them to prepare a budget that estimates “the amount of money deemed to be needed” with the superintendent.

A needs-based budget also can act as a guidepost for funds that might become available later, 2nd District School Board member Scott Barlow said. And for negotiation purposes, he noted, “We should ask for more than we expect to receive.”

Ultimately the board agreed.

A 7-1 vote adopted a $301.6 million budget option — about $1.7 million less than Bedden’s estimate of needs. Fourth District member Jonathan Young dissented, calling it an “unbalanced budget.”

First District member Liz Doerr suggested that the cover letter of the board’s budget “ask the mayor to take seriously their full budget needs — and desire to continue a fully collaborative process.”

The request is around $21.2 million more than the current year’s approved budget. Last year’s gap between what the School Board asked for and what the Jones administration gave was $18 million, which inspired marches and rallies.

After the vote, members thanked the advocates and other members of the public for their interest in the process.

Treadway chalks up the back-and-forth to a learning curve. “They came into a budget process with process already being started,” she says. “That’s kind of the nature of the beast. It’s amplified this go-around because everybody is new.”

Meanwhile, Support Our Schools is shifting focus to Virginia’s Local Composite Index, which determines school district funding from the state. It’s weighted based on property value and income, Treadway says, without regard for the population that schools are serving.

She says she hopes Stoney, City Council and the School Board will fulfill campaign promises of working with state legislators to change it. S

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