Alluding to the broken, some would even say corrupt, system behind the government that runs the City of Richmond, the school board members that oversee the management of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) were shocked when they found that there is more money in the coffers to spend on much-needed school maintenance. And, what is meant by more money, really means a bountiful lump of cash that has been hidden from fixing infrastructure in years prior.
Recently, the Richmond School Board approved the maintenance fund to fix the leaking roof of Fairfield Elementary School in the city’s East End that has languished for some time. The Board, quite worriedly, believed the $277,000 allotted for the fix would wipe out about one-fifth of the money the RPS division’s $1.56 million budget has to provide for the maintenance for 44 schools this year.
In his budget proposal, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney called for a one-time, $12.5 million cash allowance to RPS, wherein the sum is derived from $11 million in assigned fund balances and $1.5 million in unassigned balances. It redirects unspent money previously budgeted for RPS back into the school system, meaning there is no increase to the operating year-over-year budget, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD).
Even though many schools in Richmond need a complete infrastructure overhaul, the $1.56 million dedicated for building needs this year means that spending the funds on a leaky roof would leave far less money for boiler maintenance in the winter, repairs to air conditioning units that would inevitably fail again next spring, as well as mold infestations, crumbling walls and roofs, and bathrooms that are about as well-equipped as a Romanian prison.
When the end of the fiscal year came and went on June 30, the RPS administration, including the superintendent, told members of the School Board that they had just $825,000 left in the coffers for maintenance. However, just weeks later, city leaders announced there was over eight times that amount left to work with, shocking school board members and the public.
In a report from RTD, the division has $6.9 million in leftover money from past appropriations from the city to the school division after a review that reconciled accounts. Therefore, between this year’s $1.56 million allocation and the leftover money, RPS has $9.3 million available for school maintenance.
“That’s a surprise to me,” said 9th District School Board Representative Linda Owen. “I’m glad we’re finally getting it straight,” she added.
Although Richmond officials are finally getting the information about the maintenance money “straight,” not everyone is happy about the fact that leaders were given disparate information. The Richmond City Council has pressed officials to divulge consistent data as there are faced with the dilapidated conditions in many of the schools.
“It’s impossible to make good budgetary decisions when you don’t have the right information in front of you,” said 4th District Council member Kristen Larson.
On Thursday, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras said the funds are “new” to the division. “I’m delighted to have it and we’ll spend it, on roofs and on HVAC, but we weren’t showing that before,” he said.
Currently, RPS’s capital improvement funds shows that the division has $22.3 million available, some of which is restricted to specific upgrades, and other funds that can be reallocated to address maintenance problems. In the improvement fund is $7.7 million already allocated to school maintenance, with more being needed to fix historically under-maintained buildings.
Via a press release, Mayor Stoney said: “Having a clear accounting of these funds will help us provide better maintained facilities and positive learning environments to help our children achieve their potential.”
But, what exactly happened to get the division in this situation?
As stated by city and school officials, it was all about accounting.
RPS Chief Operating Officer Darin Simmons said the school district and city have not reconciled their accounts in the past and now the division is getting money that “it probably should have been getting.”
“Because we hadn’t been coming to the table regularly to reconcile and talk about our invoices and what’s being reimbursed, I think that both sets of numbers [the city’s and school district’s] kind of got out of whack,” Simmons explained.
It seems then that the root of the problem here is not exactly accounting mistakes, but blatant government stupidity.
Reportedly, the City Council has been pressuring Richmond officials to balance its accounting records since May.
“I’m extremely frustrated it has taken this long to reconcile the accounts,” said Larson.
Johnathan Young, the School Board’s 4th District member responded to the situation: “This should not be this hard. I don’t understand how or why the city’s books are so different than our books…It’s really embarrassing.”
Tom Byrnes, a spokesman for Richmond government officials, said the city and school system reconciled RPS capital funding going back “several years” and will meet monthly in the future to balance the books. But, it seems that the situation surrounding the year’s funding for maintenance problems throughout the division has happened before, quite recently, actually.
In March 2017, RPS revealed that it had built up an additional $8.3 million after several years of budget surpluses. The money was accrued by spending about $1.5 million less than its overall budget to provide a cushion, David Myers, the former RPS chief financial officer, said at the time, according to the report.
Budget surpluses are nice, but when it comes at the expense of bathrooms going without soap dispensers and toilet paper, roofs that leak several times a year, and countless other instances of a lack of modernization within the division, calling the situation embarrassing is truly the understatement of the year.
Even with the “new” money, the division is still over $10 million short of the $31 million that schools requested for maintenance.
At the beginning of the year, Mayor Stoney instituted a hike in the city’s meals tax – widely unpopular and seemingly counter to the modernization plan referendum that 85 percent of Richmonders supported at the ballot box. When it comes to providing the funds necessary to fix infrastructure and aid in the rehabilitation of schools division wide, considering the current scenario, the taxpayer dollars may be go unused again like in previous years, later to be thrown back into the system as “new” money.
With Richmond’s mayor more focused on bringing an NBA team to town than resuscitating RPS – with only 19 out of 44 schools being accredited – who knows, money for schools may wind up in the plans for the Coliseum.