On Election Day, Richmond To Vote On School Modernization Charter Change
Richmond students, teachers and support staff have reported water leaks and mold; the smell of gas; headaches and allergies. Teachers have shared images of rodents on social media, parents have tried crowdfunding to repair dilapidated bathrooms. While many buildings have problems, George Mason Elementary on Richmond’s East End became the “poster school” for neglected facilities. This summer, community members testified at a special school board meeting held at the school. Teachers said their classrooms flood and ceiling tiles fall to the floor; a basement classroom had spots so hot, crayons melt on the floor; students report itchy eyes and noses as well as headaches.
“Why do we have to have a meeting to say our children need to have a learning environment they do not have to share with roaches and rats,” said advocate Kandise Lucas at the July 31st, meeting. “This is a slave ship mentality.”
A recent effort to address the problems with Richmond public school buildings started in April 2014. RPS convened a facilities task force made up of school staff, community members, architects, planners, construction experts and real estate professionals. In June 2015, the former school board approved what’s known as Option 5. Without naming specific schools, that recommendation called for a combination of rezoning, consolidation and construction of new schools. While community meetings took place to gather more feedback, City Council didn’t take action and in 2016 elections stalled the process. Meanwhile inaction has driven up the costs, which could be up to $700 million.
“Sooner or later, you have to just say look enough is enough,” said lawyer Paul Goldman. He spearheaded the effort to get Proposition A, the School Modernization Charter Change, on the November 7th ballot. (Scroll to the end to read the measure in full.)
“Sixty-two years of talk, Sixty-two years of children going through schools. The research is clear led by Professor [Glen] Earthman of Virginia Tech, one of the leading authorities on school buildings in the world, that these buildings, if you send the child to run-down buildings it has a permanent negative effect on their ability to learn which they carry through life. It's just not right,” said Goldman.
Goldman is a law partner of Joe Morrissey, a former adviser to Doug Wilder, and ran for mayor in 2008. His referendum campaign won the support of the Richmond Crusade for Voters and the Sierra Club Falls of the James who helped get well over 10,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Proposition A begins with a 176 word preamble, putting the state of school facilities in historical and national context. It references Martin Luther King Jr. and the US Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education ruling as well as the 1970 referendum to revise the state constitution.
Four sections follow the preamble. The first requires the Mayor to, within six months of the charter change, “formally present to the City Council a fully-funded plan to modernize the city’s K-12 educational infrastructure consistent with national standards or inform City Council such a plan is not feasible.”
Part C states: “The fully-funded plan required in subsection (b) cannot be based on the passage of new or increased taxes for that purpose.” Part D states the referendum won’t “alter powers previously given to the School Board.” And Part E states that after the Mayor has submitted a plan, “the City Council shall have 90 days to take such action as it deems appropriate.”
“We don't want any more of these George Masons,” said Goldman. “We want to keep faith with the people, we want to keep faith with the idea that education should be an equalizer and it can't be, you can't get equal educational opportunities in these kinds of facilities. We are making the statement that we are tired… We want a definitive solution one way or the other.
Garte Prior with the advocacy group Richmond Forward has studied Proposition A and says much of the referendum is symbolic.
“Let's say the mayor presents a plan but it's funded over thirty years. Or the mayor can say that there's no way we can fund this plan. There's no repercussions of that,” said Prior.
Prior, who served on the RPS Facilities Task Force, says Richmond Forward isn’t taking a position on the measure. He says while it does call for collaboration with the School Board, City Council and the public, it’s not as specific as what’s being outlined in the RVA Education Compact. But it does specify a six month deadline, after the Charter change becomes law.
“The benefit I see in that is that it would put an end time on when actually collaboration would need to lead to action,” said Prior. “In Richmond, we've had a history of studying things to death or put [out] a plan and it sits on a shelf somewhere.”
The measure would also need to be approved by the General Assembly, where lawmakers could change it before it goes to a vote. Prior points to the recent City Council vote against a Charter change that would have restricted the Mayor’s access to meetings because of this concern.
“Once it gets to the General Assembly those state legislators can write, rewrite the Charter however they want for the city. We really have no control over that. So that's one of the hurdles or obstacles that this might run into if passed by the voters on November 7th. This would have to go through the General Assembly and the earliest it could go into effect would be July 1 of 2018,”’ said Prior.
Democratic Delegate Betsy Carr (District 69) says this is one of the reasons she can’t take a position on the measure. She’s concerned when it gets to the House there may be provisions about charter schools or bathroom policies. “It would be totally irresponsible to say if I support the charter change when I haven’t seen the bill,” Delegate Carr told WCVE.
Republican Delegate Manoli Loupassi (District 68), an advocate of the proposition, says he wouldn’t allow a bill that’s not “fully vetted and voted on by the people” to advance in the House. “The citizens want our elected officials to concentrate completely on getting the schools modernized and fixed,” said Loupassi. “The mayor inherits this situation, but he didn’t cause it. This has been going on for a long time, but he’s in a unique position to try to do something about it. With that power and authority, comes a responsibility.”
Dawn Adams, who is challenging Loupassi in the 68th District, said she signed the petition to get Proposition A on the ballot and will vote for it, but she has concerns. “The proposition has no teeth. There's no accountability and no call for real action,” wrote Adams in response to WCVE’s questions. “We need to put all options on the table when it comes to fixing our school buildings and improving our classrooms in order to show a future generation of leaders that we're committed to their education.”
More than 80% of RPS school buildings are more than 20 years old, one third are at least 70 years old. Both Goldman and Prior point out that a big part of the problem is the District has historically spent very little on maintenance, Prior says as low as 10 cents per square foot, when the industry average is about $3.00/square foot and $3.89 for Chesterfield County schools.
Goldman and Prior also agree that an important tool is historic tax credits. In 2009, Goldman and Republican politician George Allen co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times. They called for a change to this federal historic rehabilitation tax credit so it could be used to renovate schools. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner co-sponsored similar legislation this year, with a companion bill in the House sponsored by Pennsylvania Congressmember Dwight Evans and Virginia’s Donald McEachin. Neither bill has any other co-sponsors.
“I'm a little disappointed we don't have more of the effort here locally to support Kaine and Warner's efforts,” Goldman told WCVE. “There's been some support for it but there hasn't been enough active effort. This could save Richmond $100-200 million on school modernization and it’s beyond me why would we go on these junkets or to Denver to look at their baseball stadiums. But no one goes to Washington and knock on doors to save us a couple of hundred million dollars. It's baffling.”
Proposition A might galvanize elected leaders, says Prior, who he believes could pass a fully-funded plan long before any Charter change would become law.
“The more immediate change could happen if 11 people got on board and voted in line. If we had five City Council, five School Board and the Mayor directing the City administration, within the next month we could have a facilities plan passed and funded. So a lot of that is just political will of this time and wanting to move this conversation forward.”
Mayor Levar Stoney’s spokesperson James Nolan said the Mayor, School Board and City Council are working to develop a funding plan through the RVA Education Compact. In a statement, Nolan said the administration “strongly supports school modernization” and agrees “wholeheartedly” with the 15,000 residents who signed the petition to get Proposition A on the ballot.
“But the administration believes the referendum is flawed as currently constituted and would advocate for changes in the legislature if it were to pass,” continued the statement. “It is our position that all options should be on the table when it comes to our schools. We shouldn’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul, or wait to declare “failure” before the city can consider revenue options.”
The Richmond Green Party sees an opportunity for jobs and sustainability in school modernization and supports Proposition A. “After nearly six decades of deliberate neglect by our public schools, it's time to force the City government to prioritize education instead of corporate welfare projects,” said Montigue Magruder, Green Party candidate for the 69th District “If passed, Prop A can begin a major transformation of our school system. Incorporation of "green" technologies (solar panels, water recycling systems, etc.) into our school buildings will help reduce operational costs and climate change. We'll also have the chance to end the disparities in our public school system by ensuring every child has an environment that's clean and SAFE for them to learn in.”
Democratic Delegate Lamont Bagby (District 74) said he isn’t opposed the proposition, but “I’m just not sure that it does much.”
Richmond Councilmember Michael Jones (District 9) said he supports the move to modernize school facilities, but has a concern about Proposition A. “We can not allow for children to continue being educated in such poor conditions.” said Jones. “My only reservation is the fact that taxes could not be raised in necessary.”
Councilmember Parker Agelasto (District 5) says his main concern is Proposition A needs coordination with the School Board. "The Mayor needs an estimate of costs and priorities to implement a plan over 10-15 years. The previous School Board drafted such a plan but the current School Board is revisiting this plan and drafting its own," wrote Agelasto in an email.
"Essentially we have discussed the need for school maintenance and modernized facilities for more than a decade. I have served on City Council for nearly 5 years and have observed the process where we can never get to making this a funding priority because there’s never enough resources or the School Board didn’t have a plan. It’s time to make the plan and fund it. Enough talk. Let’s act," he said.
Proposition A, says Prior, “rightly defines school facilities as the civil rights issue for Richmond.” But he’s also concerned that it’s a short-term band aid that could be used as a wedge.
“I 100% embrace and support the want for action on this issue. I just hope that this is coming from an altruistic way and is used for collaboration and is not devised just for individual political gain and to cause really a ruckus and chaos in Richmond.”
This story was updated 11/6/2017 to include the comments of Councilmember Parker Agelasto.
Thanks to Chris Lombardi for sharing audio of the 7/31/2017 School Board Meeting, the source of public comments used in the story.
Shall the charter of the City of Richmond be amended as follows:
Section 6.15 – FULFILLING THE PROMISE OF EQUAL EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES.
(a) Preamble –
“Education is the great equalizer” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely taught us. In their historic Brown v Board of Education decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court said “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” They concluded the opportunity for an education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” The Justices further indicated the “physical condition of the school plant” could deny this fundamental right.
In 1970, Virginians by public referendum adopted a new state constitution to ensure equality of educational opportunity.
Yet national and Virginia studies show the average public school facility has been allowed to age into obsolescence. Thus while Richmond’s facilities are collectively more obsolete, our situation is not unique. Respected experts have long warned that students spending their public school lifetimes in such facilities suffer significant and permanent educational detriment.
Dr. King famously observed a right delayed is a right denied. We, the people, have therefore chosen to lead. We believe our success can set a needed example for the nation.
(b) DUTY OF THE MAYOR
Not later than six months after this section becomes law, the Mayor shall formally present to the City Council a fully-funded plan to modernize the city’s K-12 educational infrastructure consistent with national standards or inform City Council such a plan is not feasible. In fulfilling the duties herein, the Mayor shall consult with the School Board, City Council, consider cost savings available in state or federal law and further provide an opportunity for public participation.
(c) NO NEW OR INCREASED TAXES
The fully-funded plan required in subsection (b) cannot be based on the passage of new or increased taxes for that purpose.
(d) DUTY OF THE SCHOOL BOARD
Nothing herein shall alter powers previously given to the School Board.
(f) DUTY OF THE CITY COUNCIL
Once the Mayor has complied with subsection (b), the City Council shall have 90 days to take such action as it deems appropriate.