September 25, 2017
Demonstrated Harm: In Richmond City Schools
Providing a world-class public education system – where all Virginia students attend well maintained and safe schools that are conducive to student learning – requires significant and sustained investments from the state and localities.
Yet as a result of shrinking state support during and since the recession, some school divisions, like Richmond City Public Schools, are struggling to maintain their facilities or pay for repairs. More than 70 percent of Virginia school divisions now spend less per student to operate and maintain facilities than they did 10 years ago, with some divisions spending as much as 40 percent less per student. Overall, Virginia school divisions spent 8 percent less per student on operations and maintenance.
Statewide, support for public education has fallen by $640 per student since 2009 in real dollars while in Richmond City Public Schools state support has fallen by $1,212 per student — nearly twice the per student cuts statewide. If the state had maintained pre-recession funding levels, Richmond’s public schools would have over $28 million in additional state funds for their schools this school year.
Reduced state support for Richmond City Public Schools has had very real impacts on school facilities and on the activities of teachers and students in the classroom.
One Richmond City Public School teacher described how she has prepared her classroom when there’s been a forecast of rain. “When I left on Friday, I left a trash can sitting on my desk in my office and a trash can on the back wall where the computers are,” she said. “When it rains, it leaks!”
Across the state, many school divisions have looked to maintenance and operations for savings to help balance budgets while experiencing state cuts. Virginia schools employ over 1,700 fewer operations and maintenance staff than in 2009. Richmond City by itself has eliminated 113 of these positions, a 30 percent decrease. These cuts have stretched custodial staff thin in trying to maintain clean facilities for students and teachers. One teacher observed that their custodial staff has substantially decreased for the last two years.
“Our custodial staff are fewer, and they are being asked to clean more. Some of our elementary schools only have two people, one who comes in the morning and stays until the afternoon and one that comes just before they leave and is supposed to finish up their work at some point during the night.”
Another Richmond teacher explained, “We are constantly asked to do more, but with less. And I don’t know if the people, if the powers that be really know what it’s like for us. I think they need to go to all of [the schools] so that they can see the environment that our children and us are in on a daily basis. It is not an environment that they would want to work in nor send their children, I guarantee that!”
School facilities are important. Research shows that school environments can have a significant impact on teacher effectiveness and student performance. School facilities can also affect teacher recruitment and retention. One study in Virginia suggests that facilities impact teacher attitudes and behaviors and can reduce their enthusiasm for the job.
Improving and maintaining public school facilities so that Virginia students can grow and learn requires having a balanced state-local partnership supporting Virginia’s children. For too long, local school divisions have carried an increased share of the burden due to state lawmakers’ arbitrary changes to our state’s education funding formula. The negative impacts of state funding reductions have become evident in school divisions like Richmond City.
If lawmakers in the commonwealth are serious about addressing school facility needs across the state, they must find the political will to improve funding so that we can make these needed investments for Virginia’s schools.
This is the third in a series of blog posts based on The Commonwealth Institute’s recent report, Demonstrated Harm: Cuts to School Funding are Hurting Virginia Classrooms. The Commonwealth Institute conducted focus groups in six school divisions across the state during the summer and fall of 2016. The purpose of the focus groups was to gain understanding of the key challenges and opportunities facing school divisions from the perspective of on-the-ground teachers and administrators. The report summarizes the findings from those focus groups and features experiences from educators and administrators from all over the state to better understand the array of challenges Virginia schools face.