The recommendations, presented today to the task force, use about $12 million in cuts suggested by Superintendent Yvonne Brandon. An additional $11.5 million in combined cuts comes in part from previously unidentified savings made by a consulting firm owned by former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb.
Task force co-chairman Jim Dyke prefaced the presentation by saying that while the savings identified in this year's budget are important, their task remains far from finished.
"One of the charges that the mayor laid down for us is also laying the foundation to build a better school system," Dyke said, noting that the task force had yet to adopt any of the presented cuts in its final recommendations to Mayor Jones. The task force's recommendations will be made final next Monday morning at a meeting on the fifth floor of City Hall. That meeting also includes a planned public comment period.
Until then, Dyke said, "I want to stress the fact that they [the recommendations] are preliminary."
Bobb's team approached their job with "the objective of identifiying those opportunities that minimized the impact on the classroom," according to Kevin Clinton, a member of Bobb's team who presented the majority of the proposals.
The plan outlined by Bobb's group rejects some of Brandon's more controversial suggested cuts, like scaling back the district's participation in the region's two governor's schools and the MathScience Innovation Center, as well as the district's International Baccalaureate program.
Bobb called these programs, particularly IB, "expensive to operate," but added that "they're also very important marketing tools."
He suggested that long-term, the district may even need to "invest more into these types of programs across the district."
Also declined by Bobb's group is Brandon's plan to cut funding to after-school tutoring and athletic programs.
Accepted from those initial recommendations are proposals that significantly reduce administrative staff at the district's central office, while also cutting dozens of security and janitorial staff at the schools.
School-level administrators — from principals on down to librarians — will see their contracts trimmed from 12 months to 10 months, and a recommended three-day furlough for all staff also is among recommendations that the task force also approved.
Significant among proposed savings is a plan to allow outside companies to bid against the district's school-building facilities management and student bus-transportation services. The proposal, according to the preliminary report, could save between $5 million and $7 million yearly.
But, Bobb warned, "the process would need to start almost immediately to affect these types of savings. We believe the potential savings are real, they are there."
Such a process would take three to four months to complete.
He dismissed past objections — dating to before former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's administration — that outsourcing student transportation would not result in savings. His staff cited data indicating that privately contracted school buses cost as much as $20,000 per bus less than those operated by school districts.
"It's not unusual for school districts to look at how they can engage in a managed-competition process for these service contracts," Bobb said, suggesting that few if any jobs would be lost, since school layoffs often are mitigated through hiring by the high bidder in the private sector.
Escaping this first round of cuts are a number of suggestions from the public and from other city government officials, including rolling the school system's audit department into the office of Richmond City Auditor Umesh Dalal.
Dalal has performed a series of scathing audits of schools over the past six years, often suggesting savings of millions of dollars or discovering wasted dollars or resources amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Both Bobb and Dyke showered praise on Brandon and her staff for cooperating as the task force probed the dimly lit recesses of its budget.
But Bobb's recommendations didn't overlook the broader topic of consolidating city and schools departments to realize savings and to create efficiencies. In particular, Bobb said, the citywide budget and planning processes stand to realize improvements through consolidation — or at least better cooperation.
"It would be in both the district and the city's interest to have a more collaborative budget process going forward into the future," he said. "The school district should be an integral part of the city's long-term financial planning."
Such collaboration would aid everything from finding grant and federal money to the city's comprehensive planning process.
"As the city develops its plans for investment in neighborhoods and communities, the school district should be an integral component of that planning process," Bobb said.
The recommended cuts also do away with trailer classrooms. The district has maintained dozens of trailers on a lease basis, some for more than 20 years. That contract costs the district $300,000 annually, despite complaints from city and schools officials, again dating back to before the Wilder administration, that many school buildings were under capacity for student population. The district's annual daily membership — its student population — has dropped over the past six or so years by thousands of students.
Bobb warned the task force that phasing out trailers would take time: "We believe this couldn't be fully implemented this year, but you could make progress on this."
Notably, Bobb's group indicates that it continues to review a number of possible cost-cutting measures that could amount to millions more in potential savings.
Top among them is a $4.6 million contract with Community Education Partners, the private firm that operates the Capital City Program alternative-education school. That program contributes significantly to the district's ability to maintain its state SOL achievement gains by removing hundreds of difficult — often low-performing — students from regular education classes and subjecting them to separate, lower standards to be considered passing the SOLs.
Clinton called CCP the district's "largest contract" but did not indicate that there was immediately any likelihood that the contract would eventually be recommended cut.
Some proposals in Bobb's presentation would create revenue for the district, including leasing out school property for the placement of cellular phone towers. Bobb, who estimated $320,000 in new revenues, called this "an opportunity that school districts across the country" are using to make money.
Bobb called the recommended cuts so far identified "student-centered," but warned that, like the bus and facilities outsourcing ideas, some of the proposals also "will require moderate or considerable effort to implement before the start of the next school year. "
Bobb discredited claims that "$30 or $40 million" in schools budget money remained unaccounted for each year, a charge leveled on occasion by some members of City Council.
"If it's there, we can't find it," Bobb said, suggesting that his group was open to outside help in locating such money.
While students received top consideration, Bobb says, his group's review of the district's $308 million operating budget also had a softer hand toward employees.
"The [superintendent's] recommendations that we looked at impacted about 390 employees," he said. "Our recommendations impact about 90.
"What we put out is real," Bobb said of his group's preliminary report, indicating that it's up to politicians to decide whether politics allow them to accept the sometimes difficult choices such a report often contains. But regardless of how the report is received, he said, "we're willing to stand behind it."