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School Budget Fight Ushers in New Era

City School Board members seek info ahead of vote.

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With days to go before an administration-imposed deadline -- and with tight times forcing painful classroom cutbacks -- some Richmond School Board members say they want more facts before they vote to adopt Superintendent Yvonne Brandon's proposed budget.

Citing a lack of details in the proposal they've seen, a handful of board members say they want at least one additional meeting before voting to approve their 2009-2010 budget.

The School Board initially was told it would have until March 20 to approve the budget, but recently schools budget director Lynn Bragga told members the deadline was March 2.

“A budget decision is a moral decision, and it states what [the board's] priorities are,” says School Board Vice Chairwoman Kim Gray, one of four board members asking for more information. “In the absence of a line-item budget … I can't, in good conscience, vote on a budget, especially one that is calling for increased class sizes and reductions in teaching staff."

Gray says she's frustrated by the proposed budget's lack of line-item details, saying the proposal as presented asks the board to put an excessive amount of trust in schools administrative staff to make spending decisions. Also frustrating has been the process of ferreting out bits and pieces of information on specific spending initiatives.

“They said that it is too much paper to produce a line-item budget, then another time I asked they said they didn't know what I was asking for,” Gray says. “For me a line-item budget is pretty simple; it tells you all the items we are purchasing.”

Bragga did not return a call for comment.

Also frustrated is school board member Dawn Page, who chairs the finance committee. Page says the new board and superintendent accounts for much of the difficulty. More than half the board was elected in November and Superintendent Yvonne Brandon was appointed last month.

“This is new for everyone,” Page says.

Board member Adria Graham Scott equated the communications difficulties to getting married after just a few dates. “We just met and now we've got to find out how we're going to feed our kids,” she says.

Both second Gray's frustration with the process of prying details from finance department staff.
“It's about being able to make an informed decision based on having all the necessary information,” Page says. “We don't know what we don't know.”

The School Board must hold an additional hearing if a request is made by three or more School Board members, according to School Board bylaws. Page, Gray, Graham Scott and Dr. Norma Murdoch-Kitt all have requested an additional hearing.

Having additional time to examine the budget -- perhaps to consider alternatives to proposed classroom cutbacks -- is important, says Page. She questions classroom cuts that might be made without first considering cutbacks or elimination of private programs that operate in Richmond schools.

“We are the overseers -- we set policies and the superintendent implements the policies,” Page says. “Everything is on the table -- and I'm very adamant about protecting our classrooms and our teachers.”

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