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OPINION: Something Has to Give 

Both sides of the schools debate need to be more accountable and transparent.

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"Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value." — former Vice President and U.S. Sen. Joseph Robinette Biden.

Budgets are moral documents that show the values of the people who make them. 

It is understatement to say that after Mayor Levar Stoney's recent budget presentation, members of the Richmond School Board, School Superintendent Jason Kamras, teachers and public education advocates in Richmond were upset and disappointed. They talked amongst themselves, wrote statements and gave interviews to media.

At first blush, it seemed as if they were whining like a bunch of ungrateful teenagers. Given that Stoney's budget called for an unprecedented $150 million to be used for school construction and renovation in the coming year, it was hard to understand the basis of their complaint.

But a closer examination showed that while the construction money was a dramatic improvement, the money allocated for maintenance of the buildings is only $1.5 million — a pittance, given the number of schools and the dilapidated condition of many. Now, consider this: In 2016, the actual operational expenses were $170.8 million; in 2017, $176.9 million. The 2018 adopted budget gave $158.9 million and Stoney's proposed 2019 budget is $169.1 million — still less than actual expenses in 2016, before he became mayor.

If City Council and the mayor truly value the importance of raising the academic achievement of Richmond's students, the very least they can do is have an honest discussion about the disconnect between the funding level and the goal at the next meeting of the Education Compact.

If Kamras and the School Board are truly serious about understanding that their job is to give our children the best possible education, then they need to go through this budget line-by-line and cut any expenses that don't directly contribute to that goal.

Still, their disappointment is easy to understand given that School Board officials, Kamras, teachers and many city education advocates willingly stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Stoney — beneath darkening clouds and in the cold air at Huguenot High School — and urged the members of Richmond City Council to approve the increase in the meal tax. 

Stoney, who campaigned on the promise of fixing the schools and virtually crowned himself "the education mayor," has been proudly squiring Kamras around town and introducing him to various elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

Consequently, it's easy to understand why Kamras might feel a bit disappointed that more funding was not included in the operations budget. In many respects, he must feel like a general who has been sent to the front line and told he needs to win the war, with fewer soldiers and even fewer dollars than the general he's replacing.

A veteran of the beleaguered and intensely political District of Columbia Public Schools, Kamras parsed his words carefully. He told Justin Mattingly at The Richmond Times-Dispatch: "We continue to appreciate the mayor's support, and the ability to use the existing funds as we see fit will be very, very helpful."

Still, it is not enough. "At the same time, I'm disappointed there's not an increase to the operating budget," he said. "That's going to be critical to making some of our core needs, whether that's increasing educational demands driven by a growing Latino population or transportation issues."

Now, add to this collective disappointment and angst over the bottom line, a couple of misleading headlines on stories in the Times-Dispatch about the budget and what some call the high-handed way Kamras summarily fired all upper-level administrators of the school system, it is easy to understand why some folks are riled up. Those who aren't are understandably weary of the drama that permeates any discussion of public education in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and the town that drove Edgar Allan Poe to drink. 

One education advocate recently noted that the struggle to improve Richmond's schools is "an exercise that would test the patience of Mother Teresa and the dogged determination of Sisyphus. Something has got to give."

When Stoney heard that the board and Kamras were disappointed, he was nonplussed. To be fair, Stoney and members of City Council have some legitimate reasons to feel disappointed in the budget submitted by the School Board. Several have stated that they want a detailed plan that shows how Kamras and the School Board intend to raise the academic achievement for students.

Two members of City Council, Kimberly B. Gray of the 2nd District and Kristen Larson of the 4th-District, former members of the School Board, have questioned precisely how it intends to use the money as well.

"If they want to be taken seriously," Gray advised, "They need to examine their own budget, identify which expenses are, as former Gov. and Mayor L. Douglas Wilder was fond of noting, necessities and which are niceties. ... They also need to figure out which are nonsense."

Many council members and the mayor struggle to understand what rational basis the School Board and Kamras have for refusing to consolidate or close schools.

"Until this School Board steps up and shows some willingness to be accountable for using its money effectively and in a truly transparent way, I predict that they will have a hard time selling its 'vision' to the public," Gray added.

She is right. 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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