EDU FAQ #004.2: What’s all this talk about closing the budget gaps? Facilities Edition

EDU FAQ #004.2: What’s all this talk about closing the budget gaps? Facilities Edition

The schools themselves and what’s not being spent on them—Teresa’s ready to guide you once again!

Photo by: kentgoldman

You may want to catch up on budget stuff by reading EDU FAQ #004.1 beforehand.

Good to go? Still with us? Hanging on by a thread? Well, here’s part two.

Facilities Budget

A Capital Improvement Plan is different than an operating budget. These are long-range range plans (five-year plans updated annually) for the purchase, construction, enhancement, or replacement of physical infrastructure and assets–so…money spent on buildings. For school maintenance, CIP money is required to go to construction with a minimum 20-year lifetime.

CIP is funded in two major ways:

  1. General funds which we use to pay debt service on bonds
  2. Non-general fund accounts, sometimes called enterprise funds, which in theory are self-sufficient because they use fees (e.g. utility bills) to pay for necessary physical improvements and maintenance

The pool of money in #2 is pretty untouchable, #1 can move. For FY17, there’s $68 million proposed spending for #1.

How much of #1 can move? Not all of it. Projects tied to federal and state grants or regional efforts, have already been promised or planned for in multi-year applications (especially for transportation funding).

Of #1’s pool of money, the most flexible/subjective is money spent on economic development. The theory behind the major economic development projects of the past years (think NFL Training Camp, Shockoe Baseball, Main Street Train Station, and Boulevard Redevelopment) is to grow revenues and create a net return and investment to the City. A city can only use the available data from researchers to project that return on investment and there is a risk involved. They don’t always get it right.

A lot of people complained at the most recent City Council Meeting (and elsewhere) about the Training Camp, Stone Brewery, and the UCI bike races as examples of wasteful spending practices by Mayor Jones. I think it’s important to remember that a city needs that balance of economic revitalization projects if it expects to move forward and continue to bloom. Sure, the Mayor gambled on a couple of things that didn’t end up making as much money as projected–but that’s why it’s just a projection. Plus, we can’t unspend money.

Instead of beating those dead horses, our energy would be better spent looking into the current proposed five year CIP. The reality is, that in order for RPS to get the money it needs to fix our broken schools, another department’s (or multiple departments) needs and wants will have to be cut. No matter where they come from, the city will feel the impact.

Although we can’t turn back time, we can look at where we’ve stored economic development money and have yet to spend it. In reviewing the current CIP, we have $31 million unspent dollars stored away for future projects for streetscaping (decorative lighting, benches, landscaping, etc.), decorative park renovations, or longer-term studies. The largest of these being $9.4 million remaining for phase II of Boulevard redevelopment whose direction is far from being determined as the Phase I study is still underway. It’s hard to make the case for storing money away for an undetermined Boulevard site when school buildings are collapsing.

In order to wrap my head around all this, I reached out to Garet Prior of Richmond Forward. I won’t go into the background of his involvement with the RPS Facilties Task Force, as Valerie Catrow already did an amazing job of that in her article. After my hour-long meeting, I walked away feeling grateful that Prior has such a wealth of knowledge and is such a vocal advocate for the changes that need to occur in RPS. He broke down the warring City and RPS CIP budgets (below) and has a lot more information on his website1.

Over coffee, he told me that the most pressing need in RPS, in terms of facilities, is on the Southside. Not only is it costing the City the most money, but it is also bleeding the most money. Schools, specifically at the elementary level, are near capacity and growing. This wound can’t be healed with a shuffling of kids, because there just aren’t enough seats open on that side of the river. To plug the hole, Prior said RPS will have to build bigger schools with more classroom space. Bedden has proposed a five-year CIP plan, based on the Facilities Task Force recommendations, that includes funding maintenance, new construction, and the closures of some schools.2 Closing schools was always part of the CIP, but it has been expedited by the impending failure of City Council and the Mayor to fund schools.

This kind of vision for the district requires money–big piles of money. Over five years, RPS has asked for $154 million3 to maintain and rebuild schools. The Mayor has only allocated $11 million, none of which would go to new construction. Before we move on, I want you to soak in this table for a minute. Ask yourself, “Who wants to make RPS a priority?” Say it out loud. Ask a friend. My 10-year-old did the math in his head and had an answer in seconds.

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RPS’s CIP proposal covers seven maintenance project categories, outlined in the table below. District schools have a serious need for upgraded and repaired heating and air conditioning, as well as replaced and repaired roofing. Together, they make up nearly 62% of the maintenance needs in FY17 and coupled with the additional $3.9 million in plumbing needs, it’s over 71% of the requested funds for next year. Without new buildings, the five-year total still comes in over $91 million, with new construction, and the amount is closer to $200 million.

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Needs vary by school, but overall, you can see that the buildings are in desperate need of some major repairs in year one, and to ease the overcrowding, larger buildings are needed. This isn’t news to anyone as bricks fall on children, black mold infests school buildings, and some children are being educated in modular classrooms in the school yard. From the outside, the schools may not even look so bad. The threats aren’t all visible until they literally hit you in the head.

There is research to suggest that building condition impacts student learning. Researchers have found that schools with poor conditions and those using modular classrooms to ease overcrowding have negative effects on dropout rates, attendance, achievement, and behavior. It isn’t just students who feel the impact of these conditions. Research shows that teacher attrition rates and morale decline when they work in deteriorating buildings, which have an indirect impact on student learning. In kind, studies show that renovating and properly caring for buildings has a positive impact on student performance and behavior, as well as teacher turnover rates and morale. 4

So, back to my conversation with Prior. How has it gotten this bad? Prior explained it like this. According to Thomas Kranz, RPS Assistant Superintendent of Support Services, the district has approximately 4.5 million square feet of schools (although Prior’s estimates are closer to 7.2 million square feet). Historically, really until last year, Richmond was only allocating about $1 million to maintain school facilities. Prior looked into this and what he found was sickening. New schools need about $1.40 to $1.60 per square foot to maintain their facilities yearly, while older buildings are closer to $4 per square foot. 5 He spoke to Chesterfield officials and they are spending approximately $3.50 per square foot to maintain their schools. If you do some quick math, you will see that RPS, until last year, was spending only about six cents a square foot. Yes, I said CENTS. By deferring needed maintenance on schools, we’ve punted on their care and allowed many of the schools to fall into disrepair, as evidenced by the permanent closure of Elkhart, temporary closing of Armstrong last year, and the mold reports out of George Mason and John Marshall. These are just the tip of a very large, Titanic-sinking iceberg that is waiting under cover of darkness for us to drive our schools head on into it.

So, the $154 million Bedden has proposed to start addressing schools–Prior says, “We are going to spend it either in planning for it or reacting to it.” In other words, we can start dealing with the issues now, or we are going to spend it as the problems compound and become unavoidable. The long term effects of ignoring these issues is more situations like Elkhart because of environmental or health issues, more sick children and teachers, and a continued downward spiral of performance.

The RPS CIP plan is big. It outlines every expense by maintenance category. While it isn’t organized by school, a simple search can help you quickly sum up some amounts. Or, you can check out this Facilities Needs Report from Thomas Kranz. I did add up the needs of a couple schools, just for the fun of it. Armstrong needs about $2.98 million over five years and Wythe needs closer to $4.5 million. This is just to provide them the needed maintenance that has been missing for a very long time.

So, close schools? Or nah?

As a reaction to the possibility of not getting fully funded for FY17, RPS has proposed several school closures, with more to come. Approximately $3 million in savings would result from closing and consolidating the three elementaries, one high school, as well as moving Overby-Sheppard.

We aren’t going to cover the closures fully this time, but that’s coming next. I promise.

According to the budget amendments presented by Ralph Westbay at the March 7th School Board meeting, these closures are part of a larger $12.6 million reduction that would also implement hub transportation, close office buildings, demolish two unused school buildings, and eliminate other initiatives. Westbay confirmed via email that all of those cuts would come from operating budgets, none from the CIP. One point that was brought up is the proposal to reduce the budget gap by $2 million dollars through an increase to the pupil to teacher ratio.6

What could be coded behind this increase is a reduction in teacher positions. It is unclear if this savings would be at the hands of vacant teacher positions or staffed ones.

Where do you go from here? What can you do?

Nothing has been voted on yet, in terms of the Mayor’s proposed amendments. Before I leap to offering suggestions, I want to fully understand the proposed closures and the other proposed reductions. They may end up a terrible, terrible idea, or maybe not. I would encourage everyone who cares about Richmond (not just those with kids or those who plan to have kids…but everyone who gives any hoots at all about the vitality of the region), to write or call your City Council member to voice support for Richmond Public Schools. You don’t have to advocate for any specific measure or amendment, yet. We won’t even know what those are until April 18th. Just let them know how important it is to fund the schools and invest in our children. Residents of the city need to inundate them so they don’t forget that this is important and that we won’t be ignored. You can find all of the contact information for City Council members on their website.

Then, show up April 18th to the Public Meeting Budget Work Session at 12:00 PM in Richmond City Council Chambers, where they will discuss the budget amendments. Go grab some dinner between that and the 6:00 PM formal council meeting, which may include more budget discussion. After that, there is another special meeting of Council for Part 2 of the Great Budget Amendment Discussions of 2016 (can I get a ™ on that?). By then, I should have more information on possible closures. Voting on RPS funding is tentatively scheduled for May 9th. Get loud, RVA. Our kids need you.


  1. Garet Prior is the best kind of data nerd. The kind that cares about important things and uses his abilities to make good things happen. 
  2. According to Prior, 17 schools have been closed in RPS since 2005. On June 15th, 2015, the School Board directed RPS administration to begin the task force recommended alternative (Option 5), which would close 16 schools and rebuild seven, with renovations for the remaining. Rezoning was also part of the plan to deal with over and under crowding. 
  3. It was originally $164 million, but that number has since been revised. 
  4. I did a literature review on the effect of building conditions on students and teachers for one my graduate classes. I won’t bore you here with all the references, but if you want to see the literature review, leave a comment. 
  5. Prior quoted this amount and referenced this report out of Baltimore City Public Schools (PDF). 
  6. Currently the secondary pupil to teacher ratio is 1:22 and this reduction increases that to 1:23. 

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