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City leaders cool on Richmond Schools superintendent’s tax hike plan

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras sent a letter to parents that created some concern about families’ financial plans and future living situations. In the letter, Kamras said Richmond Public Schools needed more funding and suggested raising city real estate taxes 10-cents from $1.20 per $100 of assessed value to $1.30.

Heather Demascio, who has a child in Richmond Public schools, fears Kamras' plan - combined with a recent hike in the city's meals tax also to fund schools - could have a significant backlash.

"We’ll lose people to Hanover, Chesterfield and Henrico," she said. "Then who is going to support the city?"

Even before the proposed increase, Richmond homeowners pay more in real estate taxes than those in the surrounding counties.

One reason why Richmond City Councilwoman Kim Gray questioned whether Kamras' plan is worth the cost.

"Personally, as a single parent, that would be dramatic and a devastating hit to my household budget," she said. "I don’t know that we could weather an increase of that amount."

Both Demascio and Gray agreed Richmond School need help.

"There’s definitely a need when you go into some of the schools and the teachers don’t have smart boards there, or they have laptops that they are trying to teach the students on and they won’t hold a charge," Demascio explained.

Both also agreed there must be another way to fix city schools.

"First we need to make sure we are getting the books in order, so we are identifying the same funds," Gray said. "If you don’t have your financial house in order you can’t say you need more funds."

When asked whether Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney agreed with Kamras' taxt hike plan, the mayor's office replied in a statement that said - in part - [Mayor Stoney] agrees Richmond Public Schools needs more money and is having ongoing discussions with Kamras about how to make that happen.

The Kamras proposal would generate approximately $20 million per year for Richmond city schools, according to the superintendent.

He said he would like two-thirds of the new revenue for operating costs and one-third to go towards new school construction.

“I recognize that raising property taxes might be the least popular thing an elected official can do. And I recognize it means less hard-earned money in people's pockets,” explained Kamras. “But I'm asking the Council and the City to support this nonetheless. Let's move beyond impassioned speeches about the need to do something. Let's just do it.”

To offset the burden on low-income families, Kamras is also proposing a rebate program for residents below a certain income level.

In a letter to Richmond Public School families, Kamras addressed "three of the arguments that I already know will be marshaled against this proposal."

RPS doesn't need more money; it needs better management

I firmly believe it needs both. On the management side, I have tried to demonstrate over the last several months that I take this responsibility very seriously. I brought in an entirely new senior leadership team, cut 30 positions from the central office, removed a number of individuals who were not performing adequately, reconciled our capital accounts with the City, called for a finance and operations audit (which we're beginning to implement), and added an auditor position. And I'm just getting started. During this budget cycle, I intend to slash millions of dollars currently being wasted on ineffective initiatives and reallocate those resources to people and programs that have a proven track record of success.

What exactly does RPS need the money for? Does it even have a plan?

Indeed we do. As noted above, it's called Dreams4RPS and we developed it in close collaboration with stakeholders over the last several months. After more than 170 community meetings and the participation of over 3,000 people, we have a bold plan for the future built around five key priorities: 1) Exciting and Rigorous Teaching and Learning; 2) Skilled and Supported Staff; 3) Safe and Loving School Cultures; 4) Deep Partnership with Families and Community; and 5) Modern Systems and Infrastructure. You can read the full plan here.

RPS already spends more per student than the counties; why does it need even more?

Because our students have much greater needs than those in Henrico, Hanover, or Chesterfield. Our student poverty rate is roughly twice what it is in Chesterfield and Henrico, and almost three times what it is in Hanover. The research on educating children who grow up in poverty is painfully clear: it's dramatically more expensive.