Tensions run high after City Council delays budget talks

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Monday night’s Richmond City Council meeting spiraled into chaos as protestors took over the microphone, demanding additional money from the city budget for schools.

The school board claims its budget gap for the fiscal year beginning in 2017 is $18 million. Protestors who interrupted the meeting shouted and cried out; some were even escorted outside by police. Aside from the list of people who signed up to speak, the meeting agenda was closed for public comment on the RPS funding shortfall.

When council pushed back votes on all budget-related papers until next week, angry speakers began shouting out of turn from their seats, some taking over the podium.

“Ya’ll are trying to move on, get back to your rich houses,” an angry protester told council members after being called down from his seat. “These people are fighting for regular working-class kids.”

The man went on for nearly three minutes before another speaker took over. Through tears, a mother pleaded for council to find the money to keep endangered schools open.

Later in the meeting, police escorted a man out of the building after he yelled out that the funding issue was a ploy for white supremacy. The chaos came just hours after more than a hundred people descended on city hall bearing signs in support of fully funding Richmond’s schools.

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Meanwhile, 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto revealed a smaller-than-expected funding goal as council works to adjust the mayor’s proposed spending plan by next month.Agelasto said council is working to find an additional $5 million in the budget for schools, which would fill the school funding gap by less than a third.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones released the following statement Monday night:

We all want Richmond Public Schools (RPS) to have their funding needs met. Year after year, my budgets have devoted millions in additional funding to the school system and the city of Richmond presently spends more per pupil than the state average and considerably higher than the surrounding jurisdictions. As I noted in my budget presentation to City Council, I have proposed to once again allocate the $11.2 million in new money in the fiscal budget that City Council set aside last year for Richmond Public Schools, and to hold them harmless from cuts that all other agencies are facing.

If the City had more money, everyone would be willing to allocate more funding to school needs. But, the money simply doesn’t exist. And to find it, would require taking it from other critical services. I know it’s an election year, and that means lots of promises. But the test of leadership is to show how you will actually accomplish your goals. While other agencies have seen reductions year after year, I have authorized schools to retain budget surpluses from previous years. I have also proposed a 25% reduction in discretionary non-departmental funding, as well as higher fees that our residents will pay for service delivery. None of these decisions are easy, but they are necessary to pay for the decision last year to divert funds away from basic services. We must understand that funding for basic services and funding for schools is not a matter of ‘either/or.’ It’s about determining how to do both, given the limited resources available.

That is why I have convened a Multi-Year School Funding Project Evaluation Team, which is made up of members of City Council, the School Board, City staff, the superintendent and his staff, as well as community leaders and stakeholders in the business community. Our goal is to develop a long-term, sustainable funding program to bring RPS the money requested for facilities and operations, and to do it in a way that preserves the City’s financial integrity.

As your Mayor, I’ve had to write budgets with limited local revenue, declining state funding, and rising needs. In fact, while our population has increased 10% over the past decade, the number of City personnel to serve that growing population has declined by 9%, and revenues are roughly the same as they were a decade ago. This is partly because the City had decided to lower the real estate tax rate twice just prior to the recession. That action, together with the economic downturn, basically has us operating today, in 2016, at 2008 financial levels-even though the city has grown over that time. These are the facts.

Our dollars are limited, and any new ones have to come from somewhere. My approach is to live within our means as much as possible. I have proposed to fund services using existing resources and by raising some new ones.

It’s a bad idea to raid our financial reserves, because that will threaten our credit rating, and we should reject any proposal to do so. A lower credit rating will make it harder and more expensive to borrow money in the future, and that means it will take longer and cost more money to build new schools and deliver the other services our residents and neighborhoods expect.

It’s also a bad idea to continue down the path that was taken last year, the path of cutting operations without regard for the consequences. Any additional cuts to basic services will negatively impact the city. Richmond residents don’t want that, and that’s why we don’t hear any calls for service reductions-like giving up leaf collection, cutting hours of operation at City Hall, cutting back on public safety expenditures, reducing trash pickup, or cutting bulk trash services.

I hope you will ensure your voice is heard on this very important issue now, and as discussions continue into the future.

After Monday night’s meeting, organizers behind the ‘Support RPS’ group are calling for a town hall meeting between city council and the school board to lay all of the facts on the table.

For now, city council will hold a public hearing on May 9 on their proposed budget amendments.

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