Texts from a night at City Hall

Me: “Wait, $1,500,000 divided by 25 is $60,000. Why couldn’t they use that money to hire new teachers? Am I missing something?”

Eva: “You’re not missing anything. Just wait”.

This past Monday, I spent my first night attending Municipal Government meetings at Richmond’s City Hall. It was, in a word, enlightening. On a night that featured a contentious City Council meeting featuring discussions about alcohol and gay rights (two things I care deeply about), I decided to let my good friends Matt and [Callie](http://twitter.com/calliegotclass handle the City Council meeting while I attended a meeting of the School Board.

Since I was 15 years old, the Richmond City Public School system has kept me up at night. It inspired me to start a run for Mayor in 2008 (which I, regrettably abandoned to work for another campaign) when I was 18, and despite a tumultuous and eventful life since then, I can’t shake it the feeling that RPS and education reform as a whole will determine the soul of our city. I mean this very seriously - if we achieve even average schools in our city (and we should aim higher), I think Richmond can honestly be the greatest city in the world. However, if we don’t, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past and maintain the sad racial and socio-economic dichotomies that have plagued our city for decades.

So I attended the School Board meeting - and boy did I learn some things. I realized how incredibly in the dark the School Board members are kept before the meetings (look at all the information one member was given before the meeting), how pronounced the disdain of the previous Superintendent is, and how the School Board members truly are just citizens who have sought this particular duty (3 of them showed up late because of their other jobs). But more than anything I realized the result of this: there are a few people in the room who really know what’s going on, and it’s not the Board.

This isn’t the Board’s fault, but it was never more apparent than the discussion regarding the K-3 class size grant. The crux of the issue was this: RPS gets $5.3-ish million each year for keeping K-3 class sizes on average at a 19-1 teacher-to-student ratio. For each student they go over that ratio, they lose some of that money. Last year they lost $800,000, this year they’re slated to lose $2.2 million of it - that’s if nothing is done. The proposal on the table is to fill 8 of the 33 positions they were short with long term substitutes (cheaper than full-time teachers, but also worse for the system in many ways) which would result in only losing $1.3 million of the grant, which in total works out to losing essentially $1.5 million dollars (when you include their salaries in the losses).

This struck me IMMEDIATELY as odd - wait, we’re losing $1.5 million dollars from our budget because we’re 25 teachers short? I didn’t immediately do the math to see if that made sense - I waited for comment from the Board. And shockingly - nobody said anything, they all took for granted that hiring more teachers MUST increase costs. After about 10 minutes, I sent my friend Eva (also in the meeting), the text message at the top of this post, essentially making the point wouldn’t it be possible to hire all 33 teachers, have more teachers, AND more money? I know $60,000 a teacher per year may be less than the average highly qualified teacher costs us, but even if the costs was $90,000 a teacher, we’d STILL be getting our losses in half! And yet it took the Board 15 minutes to mention this, and the interim Superintendent who proposed the measures didn’t mention it all! HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE??

Well it turns out, when it was finally brought up, there are a few factors at play:

  1. The government couldn’t find 33 qualified teachers if they tried.
  2. There was a proposal on the table later in meeting to allow Teach for America to come into Richmond with about 30 teachers in 2014 (a measure Eva, the interim Super and I support) that was being teed up as budget-positive by pointing out the budgetary benefits of actually being able to fill these open positions with TFA employees (who are paid at the lowest rate of all teachers in any system).

Ah. So that’s how this works. Got it. Noted.

The last text I want to share with y'all from my first night at City Hall is what I sent to Matt on my way out.

Me: “What a weird meeting. There was a really surprising amount of instructing the Board on how Math works, even though nobody actually seemed confused”.

Matt: “We just got done with ‘Awards and Recognitions’. So yeah.”

That was sent over an HOUR AND A HALF into this incredibly important City Council meeting. Welcome to Municipal Government!!!!!


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