The details of a budget already approved by the Richmond School Board are still not public, an apparent violation of state open records law and the district’s own written policy. It’s a move that has sparked concern from community members, some members of the nine-person elected board and an open government advocate.
The board published a 31-page budget summary before its Monday night vote, a document that details the amount it will bring in but offers little detail about how that money will be spent. What it’s hiding is a 228-page budget filled with specific information on positions and programs that it was given by the city school system’s administration last week, a document it voted on — and approved in a 6-3 vote — Monday.
“It’s such basic government information,” said Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “There’s no more foundational information than how this money will be received and spent, and they are not discussing this basic information in public.”
The approval included a $13 million slashing to the district’s budget and calls for the net elimination of 49 central office jobs. Despite calls from the public and a minority of the School Board, the specific jobs on the chopping block have not been made public.
“We missed an opportunity to build trust and show this city what good governance and transparency looks like,” said 3rd District representative Kenya Gibson, who voted against the budget, as did 5th District representative Patrick Sapini and 6th District representative Felicia Cosby.
On Monday, Gibson prompted a conversation, including page references and specific information, on the full budget during the board meeting when she told members of the public that it existed and only board members received copies of it.
While the board had the conversation on the larger, itemized budget in a public meeting entirely in open session, it has yet to be made available to the public.
Virginia public meetings law says at least one copy of materials given to a public body, such as the Richmond School Board, “shall be made available for public inspection at the same time such documents are furnished to the members of the public body,” unless they’re exempt.
Once officials talk about the budget in open session, “the ‘unless exempt’ is destroyed essentially,” Rhyne said.
After asking for a copy of the larger budget because the board had discussed it in open session, a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter was told by the School Board clerk and the superintendent’s chief of staff to file a Freedom of Information Act request. That request was filed Monday night and acknowledged — but not fulfilled — on Tuesday.
“Forcing anyone to go through FOIA to get what is the most basic government information — how the money is going to be received and spent — seems tone deaf,” Rhyne said.
The administration and majority of the board have decided not to disclose the specifics of the jobs that are set to be cut yet .
Chairwoman Dawn Page said Monday night that the board needs “to protect the confidentiality and the dignity of the staff,” while also abiding by the board’s policy of having personnel discussions in closed session. That, she said, is why the 228-page budget has not been released to the public.
A spokeswoman for the district said Tuesday that there is no other reasoning for not releasing the full budget “beyond what has already been stated.”
The board’s policy, though, aligns with Virginia’s law that says agendas and meeting materials “shall be made available for inspection by the public at the same time such documents are furnished to the School Board members unless materials are exempt under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.”
“The budget should be made public but keep in mind that personnel matters are personnel matters and that’s not public information,” Page said Tuesday, deferring to the administration on when it will be made public.
She disputed the notion that the budget, with identifiable information such as job titles, is public information. The “name, position, job classification, official salary or rate of pay” of any public employee are among the few records specifically identified as public information in Virginia’s FOIA law.
A vote last week meant to make public the 49 positions being cut in the budget died in a 5-4 vote. Superintendent Jason Kamras said Monday that the district would make the positions public by April 1.
Some board members and community members said Tuesday they want the full budget — with more specifics — released sooner.
“It has to be disclosed — now,” said 4th District School Board member Jonathan Young, who voted in favor of the budget. “We are a public organization paid for by taxpayers and they have the right to know what’s in that 228-page document and it’s our responsibility to provide it.”
Gibson, Page and Young all serve on the board’s governance committee, which met Tuesday night to review proposals from Young and Gibson to improve transparency and good governance, issues the board has battled since it took over in 2017.
In April 2017, the board decided to part ways with its superintendent, Dana Bedden, behind closed doors. The decision to appoint an interim superintendent, Tommy Kranz, was made at 3 a.m. The hiring of Kamras was made without public vetting of the candidates, unlike the process of hiring Bedden. The board approved a facilities plan in December 2017 without public comment.
Kristin Reed, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an education advocate, called the lack of transparency “heartbreaking.”
“In January, 4,000 parents and teachers marched in Richmond in support of fully funded schools, which requires community input and transparency,” she said. “Despite that clear public mandate, our School Board has approved a highly secretive document with substantial cuts to staff, supplies, and programming.”
Said Richmond Education Association Vice President Bradley Mock: “What we need is a fully funded school system, and a School Board that isn’t afraid of a needs-based budget. We need the leadership in Richmond Public Schools to be transparent about those needs, and about what the plan is to address them.”
The district has five days — according to the same state open records law it ignored Monday — to respond to the FOIA request for the budget.