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Cut and Run

The mayor’s schools report has lots of budget recommendations, but says nothing about educational quality itself.

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Is the city public school system facing a crisis of mismanagement and inefficiency? Consider: Total revenues by the Richmond Public Schools have fallen during the past three years, from a high of $265.7 million in the 2008-'09 school year to $249 million this year, while total enrollment remained essentially flat. Due to loss of one-time funds and state budget cuts, the school system projects revenues of $240 million for 2012-'13.

The school system also projects $14.7 million in increased spending, which includes $11.9 million as the result of changes in the mandatory contribution to the state retirement fund and rising health- and life-insurance costs. The projected budget also includes money for a 1-percent raise and increased spending on speech-therapy services.

These are the rather prosaic reasons behind the school budget blowup. When the School Board voted in February to request $24 million in additional funding from the city to cover the deficit — general fund appropriations for the Richmond schools are $7.6 million less than in 2008-'09 — it did so in hopes of provoking a needed community-wide conversation about the priority of public schools in the city budget.

No serious person would suggest that the performance of Richmond Public School children, whether measured by graduation rates, test scores or college attendance, compares well with our suburban neighbors, or that there isn't serious work left. As Mayor Dwight Jones said in his State of the City address in January, no one should content themselves with celebrating mediocrity.

The key question, however, is whether the root cause of disappointing achievement lies in administrative mismanagement and poor leadership, or rather the city's poverty rate and the hypersegregation of city schools.

For the sake of space, and because no one disputes that the Richmond schools still have major progress to make at the middle- and high-school levels, a good barometer to consider is the math and reading scores of third-graders. Likewise, because few people dispute that what is known as proficiency on statewide Standards of Learning tests is a code for mediocrity, we'll focus on how many of the third-graders are achieving advanced-pass scores on the tests, which are reported by each school system to the state each year.

In 2010-'11, 31 percent of third-graders in Richmond received advanced-pass scores on reading, and 37 percent scored advanced pass on math, according to state figures. In comparison, 43 percent of third-graders in Henrico County scored advanced pass on reading and 63 percent advanced pass on math. In Chesterfield County the numbers were 46 percent in advanced pass reading and 64 percent in math.

These are troubling differences, to be sure. But a closer look at the data tells a more complex story. Among economically disadvantaged children in Richmond, 26 percent of third-graders received advanced-pass scores in reading, 33 percent in math. In Henrico, 26 percent of economically disadvantaged third-graders got advanced pass in reading, 44 percent in math; in Chesterfield, the figures were 28 percent in reading and 45 percent in math.

These numbers are nothing to cheer about. But they indicate that the Richmond schools are doing just as good a job as Henrico and Chesterfield schools in teaching reading to poor children. The gap in math is troubling though not shocking given the greater difficulty of teaching disadvantaged children in extremely high-poverty settings. More importantly, it strongly indicates that the vast majority of the observed difference between achievement in Richmond and its neighbors has to do with underlying demographic differences.

Why does this matter for the current conversation? Many people, once they become aware of the stark inequalities in our urban school systems, are drawn to blow-it-up, radical theories of change. Fire the principals, fire a lot of the teachers and start over. The city's recently hired school consultant, Robert Bobb, oversaw such a restructuring in Detroit, which involves large-scale school closings and shifts to a more privatized school model.

But this approach will accomplish little if underlying demographics, not mismanagement, are the main driver of low academic performance. Attacking poverty and challenging metropolitan school segregation are critical too reducing the achievement gap in the long term. In the meantime, what's important is continuing to make incremental progress.

The commission appointed by the mayor to help close the budget gap, in consultation with Bobb and another company, recommends cutting 20 teaching positions, 25 teacher aides and 50 nonteaching positions, as well as eliminating raises and reducing benefits for teachers. It also recommends outsourcing and privatizing of some operational functions, with Bobb volunteering his consulting firm's services to manage that process.

We strongly oppose eliminating teacher and aide positions and cutbacks in salary and benefit pools. Richmond's children and their teachers deserve better than that. We also are disturbed by Bobb's push for a rushed form of privatization directly benefiting his company and its clients. It smacks of trying to profit from a crisis he was enlisted to help address.

To be sure, the question of how best to achieve greater operational efficiencies over the long term should be on the table. So should the painful question of what spending items in the city budget must be cut or trimmed to preserve teacher positions and salaries. And so too should the possibility of modest revenue increases to offset the budget shortfall.

But all those conversations need to be oriented around not only cost efficiency, but also school effectiveness. The mayor's special commission report to City Council has lots of budget recommendations, but says essentially nothing about education and educational quality itself. The community conversation can't focus only on protecting gains and progress that have been made, but on what it would truly take to make needed breakthroughs such as improving the middle schools and better preparing high-school students for employment.

The ball is now squarely in City Council's court. Now is the time for city residents to make loud and clear to City Council what a high priority they place on our public schools. S

Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. Adria Scharf is executive director of the Richmond Peace Education Center.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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