The Roanoke 40: Empire Strikes Back

At City Council's September 26th meeting, we heard an impressive line-up of impassioned, creative, and persuasive speeches by Chris Lombardi (52:01), Ansley Perkins (55:21), and Kelley Ryan (108:38). I was blown away by this talented line-up and those attending in support. From Richmond Forward's view, this is liquid gold. Our purpose is to train up and empower others to enact change. RT-D's Ned Oliver provided a great follow up with this jarring quote from Dr. Bedden: 

“Right now, it’s almost like being in a shark tank every budget season; it’s just not a healthy environment.”

At the Council meeting I proposed a deadline of October 24th for City Council to meet and discuss a solution for dedicated school funding. Included in my somewhat coherent ramblings (105:56) is how if this was TRULY our priority - like when I started dating my wife - we'd find a way to make it happen. I used the analogy that if we viewed school funding solutions as summer homework, the only Councilperson who turned in their homework is Baliles (with Agelasto supporting). The rest of Council is sitting at a grade of "Incomplete/F" with little time left to turn in their papers (next year's budget begins in early November).  

As of today (10/14) at Noon, the Council responses to setting a deadline of October 24th for a dedicated funding solution are: 

Yes

  • Agelasto
  • Baliles 
  • Samuels (can't make the 24th) 
  • Trammell (can't make the 24th) 

No

  • Graziano (we had a good talk, but she doesn't think a pre-election timeline is doable and we respectfully disagree on whether funding or accountability measures come first) 

Let's Just Be Friends/Relationship Status Unknown

  • Hilbert (responded and set up a meeting early next week to discuss) 
  • Mosby (no response) 
  • Robertson (responded and would like to wait until finance committee meeting to hear from staff on timeline) 
  • Newbille (responded and would like to meet and discuss) 

What We're Really Talking About

The Roanoke 40 is not really about school funding.  

The Roanoke 40's major impact will be changing the dialogue and culture of our budget process. It's about building transparency and accountability into a system by allowing the public to an easier view into where money comes in and how its spent. 

The Roanoke 40's beauty is that it changes the narrative from "How much money?" to "How is money being spent?" The circular in-fighting and budget negotiating tactics between Mayor, Council, and School Board will end with an agreed upon level of funding for schools. If the schools request additional dollars, we as the public will back City Council in asking for clear goals and accountability measures for the request. This elevates the discussion of school funding because we're actually talking about SCHOOL SPENDING.

Real life analogy alert!

If you give a teenager a budget and they ask for more, you have the right to ask for how they've spent their dollars. If you just give them money without ever agreeing to a budgeted amount, and they come to ask for more, how can you ever hold them accountable? 

The Roanoke 40 will not be enough money to transform our schools. 

The cost of educating a student living in poverty can be as much as 2.5 times that of educating a student living in wealth. With 97.6% students free and reduced lunch eligible, Richmond's per pupil spending should climb from $13,601 to $23,801 if using Hanover County as a baseline ($9,711 per pupil and 20% free and reduced lunch) to meet state recommended levels for funding.

The reality is that we will NEVER be able to function as a local government with funding schools to the necessary level under our current circumstances. The amount of non-taxable land (property owned by the state, medical providers, and universities) within city limits handcuffs our efforts to grow revenue. City residents pay $0.36 of the total $1.20 in real estate tax to subsidize this difference (i.e. removing this subsidy displays that Richmond government at $0.84 is funded similar to Chesterfield $0.96, Henrico $0.87, and Hanover $0.81). 

The Roanoke 40 is not THE school funding answer, but is a crucial first step. Dedicated school funding is the incremental first step we need to buy time in gathering a larger package of investment and partnerships to coordinate planning, transportation, housing, mental/physical health, and education that will truly transform our city and obliterate concentrated poverty. Before we can get, what I think will be upwards of $1 billion over the next 10 years in new community infrastructure, we must begin with what we can do today. People are hard at work in building the framework for such a plan and trust me, you haven't heard the last from the Mayorathon coalition.

The Roanoke 40 will not break city coffers because its what we're doing today! If you add up money spent on school operations with money paid on school infrastructure debt servicing, you get dang close to 40% of local tax revenues. Here are the numbers to back this up: 

Roanoke's City Manger Q&A 

To get a better idea of what life under the Roanoke 40 looks like, I called Chris Morrill, City Manager for Roanoke. The Q&A is below, but what impressed me most is the positive culture of coordination that's built up over years by having this process in place. Also, is should be noted that Chris is a high quality person.  

Chris Morrill, Roanoke City Manager (Awesome Dude)

Chris Morrill, Roanoke City Manager (Awesome Dude)

1. What were the major hurdles getting this in place? What background information would you want someone starting this to know?

The 40% formula simplified a previous budget formula in 2011. The previous formula had a lower percentage with lots of deducts and adds and did not include debt. At the start, 5 million in debt capacity from the city was given to schools. The public not seeing in-fighting between elected officials is a HUGE payoff. It's good that it’s a simple formula. 

2. Richmond City provides services to support schools (e.g. grounds maintenance) that are not accounted for in the operating budget as money allocated to schools. Was this the case in Roanoke? If so, were there city services transferred over to the schools to pay/maintain/operate with the shift in dollars?

Performance agreements generating revenues come off the top and the 40% allocation to schools is taken from there. Schools pay for full cost of shared services (ground maintenance, auditor, etc.) and they now have taken over management of these services. For resource officers and sheriffs in schools, the schools pay fees to the city. 

There was an area of potential conflict that we did not anticipate that had to do with fees. To balance the budget one year we were contemplating creating a Solid Waste Utility with a $7 fee per household rather than increasing taxes. While no public disagreement there were some concerns expressed from the schools that they would not share in this new revenue. In the end we did not adopt a solid waste fee.

3. I thought I read that Roanoke used 2-years of meals tax to pay for schools. What was the need for additional funding?

The city implemented an "eat for education" campaign for a 2-cent meals tax that had a 2-year sunset clause. The additional revenues were used to transition from the previous formula to 40%. The schools can carry over money in their budget they don't spend and at the end of the 2-years they had a $30 million surplus. Also, the City will re-review at the fiscal year's end and give a true 40% to schools. This has led to additional dollars being allocated in the past. 

4. How often is this agreement reviewed? I’d guess annually during the budget, but what holds a new City Council and School Board accountable to past agreement? Do you have any caveats for increased state spending or downturns in the market/revenues?

Roanoke's policy is reviewed every 3-years and there are joint-meetings scheduled between Council and School Board at minimum twice a year. At these meetings they discuss school funding and accountability measures defined by the equity scorecard

The Council appointed School Board helps with relationship building. 

5. What if the School Board requests more money than is allotted in the formula? Has this happened? What has been the reaction?

The school board has never requested more that what's allocated under the agreement. It's well understood and supported by the culture. 

Next Steps

If you made it this far, congratulations! It's been quite a journey. 

Here's where you come in. Your voice needs to be heard to make this a reality because our elected officials are only as accountable as we hold them. Time is almost out as next years budget begins in early November. This cannot wait until after the election. 

Be sure to contact your City Council members (RF homepage one-click) and show up to speak out or support a solution at the following: 

  1. Monday, October 17th at 6pm: Richmond Forward is slated to provide an update on the Roanoke 40 to the School Board. 
  2. Thursday, October 20th at 3pm: City and School administration will present analysis of the Roanoke 40 to City Council's finance committee.  
  3. TBD: City Council special meeting to discuss a dedicated funding solution. 

We need City Council to act on #3. When contacting City Council, ask them to set a date (or provide us a timeline) for a dedicated funding solution. If schools are TRULY our priority, then together we can find a solution.