Confusion over unused RPS funding dominates school board meeting

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — School officials faced finger-pointing and fiery accusations Monday night over $8.3 million in unspent funding that was recently accounted for. Misinformation and confusion took over during public comment at the Richmond School Board’s regularly scheduled meeting.

Since late last week, some taxpayers have been under the impression that RPS had secretly built up the money over the years and was somehow hiding it from the public. However, those familiar with the city’s budgeting process say that is simply not the case. Their explanations did little to placate the crowd.

“This is the worst administration in history!” shouted one angry speaker from the podium Monday night.

“At a minimum, the superintendent needs a vote of no confidence,” said former city councilman Marty Jewell. “At maximum, he needs to be removed.”

For nearly 45 minutes, angry speakers took aim at school officials, several days after media reports that school board members didn’t know about more millions of dollars in unspent RPS funds until after they approved their budget.

Former board member Tichi Pinkney Eppes also blasted district heads for what she called a lack of transparency.

“Reading the comments from the chairperson that, you know, ‘this is unacceptable, we did not know.’ When you look on social media you’ve got other board members saying ‘we’re disappointed, we didn’t’ know’.”

Former finance assistant superintendent Ralph Westbay explained to 8News that the unused funding is not a surplus, but rather, money left over from the RPS budget year.

“I thought it was a travesty of how this is all being characterized,” Westbay said.

Any leftover cash goes back to the city as “unassigned fund balance.”

“They’re viewing the fund balance as hidden money and it’s never been hidden. It’s in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and posted online for everyone to see,” Westbay said.

The 2016 and 2017 CAFRs have not yet been made public.

According to RPS, the extra money often comes from vacancies or lower salaries for new employees. Unassigned school cash cannot be spent without the city’s permission. The money gets reported every year to the school board and the city. The funds cannot go toward everyday operating costs, but are typically spent on emergencies or one-time costs.

“If you’ve got people fighting over misconceptions of money and what it means, then you have no chance of addressing the real issues and what you need,” Westbay said.

In a written statement, school funding advocacy group Support Our Schools said the following:

“If there were any questions by anyone in city leadership regarding these funds, they should have addressed these directly to the Superintendent or RPS’s Financial Officer. In the future, this type of confusion can be avoided by our elected officials creating a written policy in concert with RPS administration that clarifies how much of a “cushion,” or what percentage of the operating funds they believe should remain in the fund balance.”

RPS said the district would need to use about $3 million of the projected unassigned fund balance. That money would go toward technology, safety and security requests in the budget.

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.

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