Members of the Richmond City Council are optimistic that the wave of Democratic victories on Election Day could renew debate during the upcoming legislative session of how the state funds public education.
Budget spats over funding for Richmond Public Schools in recent years have put the RPS administration and School Board at odds with the mayor and the council. But city leaders across the board have long griped that the state is shorting Richmond, and other urban school divisions, with a funding formula they have characterized as flawed and inequitable, in part, because it does not take into account the demographics of local school divisions and, particularly, how many of its students are living in poverty.
Democrats won big in Tuesday’s House of Delegates races, erasing Republicans’ 32-seat advantage in the chamber. Republicans cling to a slim majority with a handful of recounts pending, but whether they retain control or Democrats seize it, council members say they expect the gains will result in a serious appraisal of the way the state allocates money to local school divisions.
“School funding, I think, is certainly going to be looked at very seriously,” said Council President Chris Hilbert. “Certainly, they’re more poised to look at this issue through the lens of fairness and doing the right thing relative to the older jurisdictions in the commonwealth, with the majority of people who live in poverty.”
At issue is a state formula called the Local Composite Index (LCI). The calculation, which relies heavily on a locality’s tax base and real estate assessments, determines a school division’s ability to pay for the education of its students, which the state then uses to determine its per-pupil contribution to the locality.
The council and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney met with members of the region’s state lawmakers last month to discuss the city’s draft legislative package, which the council is expected to finalize in the coming weeks. It outlines bills the city wants members of the local delegation to carry during the 2018 session, as well as positions on issues that may arise.
In the package is a request that state lawmakers direct the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission to study the state’s role in funding public schools. In remarks at the summit, Stoney singled out school funding for operations and capital improvements as one of his top priorities.
“I know that we cannot realistically expect to meet the full needs of our schools on our own,” Stoney said at the summit. “Richmond has not been getting its fair share of school funding for many years, and it’s time that we all work together to change that.”
Since 2009, state funding for local school divisions has fallen by almost 11 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to a synopsis by the Richmond-based Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
For city schools, state funding spiraled by 16 percent since the Great Recession, the steepest drop-off in the region. By comparison, Henrico County’s state allocation has fallen by 10.3 percent; Chesterfield County’s schools by 10.5 percent; and Hanover County’s by 11.6 percent, according to the Commonwealth Institute analysis.
Richmond lawmakers have proposed bills seeking changes to the funding formula, but they have not advanced in past sessions.
The issue is not necessarily a partisan one, lawmakers have said in the past. Tweaking the formula to accommodate cities with high poverty rates could drastically affect the state’s contribution to suburban and rural school divisions, aiding certain localities or regions at the expense of others.