Richmond City Council still split on school funding
By Keya Vakil
April 24, 2019

After a nearly three-and-a-half-hour public meeting, the Richmond City Council is no closer to a decision on Mayor Levar Stoney’s budget proposal, deciding to delay a decision on the issue until a special meeting on April 29.

Nearly 100 people attended a public meeting of the Richmond City Council on Monday evening to discuss Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to boost education funding by increasing the city’s real estate tax.

Stoney’s plan would increase the city’s real estate tax by nine cents, to $1.29 per $100 of assessed value. This would raise $18 million that Stoney wants to funnel to Richmond Public Schools for teacher raises and the first phase of Superintendent Jason Kamras’ new strategic plan to improve education outcomes in the city.

While Stoney has the support of Kamras, most of the Richmond School Board, and the Richmond Education Association, the city council expressed reservations.

Five of the nine-member council sponsored an amendment to maintain the current real estate tax rate. Those members are 1st District Councilman Andreas Addison, 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, 4th District Councilwoman Kristen Larson and 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell.

Of these five, only Addison’s amendment would fully fund RPS. His proposal would cut every city department’s budget by 1.5%, which would save an estimated $7.5 million. His plan would also remove $3 million for retirement plans, cut vacancy funding for city departments by $4.49 million, and shift $8.1 million from the RPS strategic plan to a special fund, a decision he thinks would promote accountability in how schools use their funding.

The other four council members sponsored amendments proposing smaller rate increases, ranging from $1.23 to $1.25 per $100 of assessed value. While three of these four amendments would fully fund RPS, 6th District Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson’s amendment would not.

Educational advocates and RPS teachers, parents and students in attendance made their demands clear: pass Stoney’s budget or find another way to fully fund the schools.

7th District School Board Member Cheryl Burke, a supporter of Stoney’s education plan, emphasized the importance of the funding, saying it was time to make the city’s children a priority.

Liz Doerr, Vice Chairwoman of the School Board, also attended and expressed her support for the Mayor’s budget.

“I sincerely hope that our city council reps come together today to have smart conversations and find a budget compromise for the sake of our schools and infrastructure. It’s time we all put egos and bias aside and do what’s right for our city,” Doerr said in a statement.

Doerr said she hopes that the council members proposing amendments with smaller tax hikes could reach a compromise on their proposals and secure one more vote, thus giving them a majority to fully fund the schools.

While education advocates made their support known, some residents spoke out in opposition to Stoney’s plan, saying they supported the city’s schools but did not support a tax increase on top of already rising property tax bills.

Property values rose by an average of 8.3% this year and the average home value increased from $228,000 to $247,000, resulting in a $228 increase in the average tax bill. Stoney’s tax hike would add an additional $222 to the average bill, making it $3,186, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The council also considered several other amendments on Monday, including one that would have levied an 80-cent-per-pack cigarette tax, which they ultimately rejected. Instead, Stoney’s proposed 50-cent-per-pack tax will remain in the budget.

They also decided against an increase the city’s admissions tax rate, from seven cents to ten cents per every dollar spent on ticketed events in the city. Stoney opposed the measure over concerns it could lead to a sharp reduction in the number of events held in the city.

The council’s next budget work session is on Wednesday, and if a majority of the council still refuses to budge on the real estate tax, it must decide on spending cuts or other tax increases in order to fill a $21 million gap in Stoney’s budget.

This could mean RPS takes a hit in funding — something that is sure to draw the ire of educational advocates.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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