Back to Basics 

How schools, the baseball stadium and the success of the city’s anti-poverty commission are all connected in the good book of Mayor Dwight Jones.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

The city is enjoying a rebirth and its population is growing again, Mayor Dwight Jones says. But without a stronger, more innovative public education system, more and better-paying jobs, and economic development that will fatten city coffers, he says, Richmond cannot reach its full potential.

In a wide-ranging interview with Style Weekly last week, Jones made some of his most expansive remarks to date about the “furor” over a new baseball stadium, his gradual embrace of public charter schools and the challenge of getting the city as a whole invested in work of the anti-poverty commission.

He continually returned to the same theme: Richmond, which has lost jobs and tax revenue to the counties and which cannot ferry its work force into the counties to follow those jobs, must find a way to grow its tax base, better prepare its young for careers and create the jobs and housing necessary to provide low-income residents the opportunity to move into the middle class.

Style met with Mayor Dwight Jones on Oct. 21 in a conference room just outside his office.

Below is the full transcript of the conversation.

Style: You said at one time you were a public school purist. But even in 2008, your position was changing toward public charter schools. Where are you now?

Jones: You know, my generation saw public schools as the vehicle for passage into the middle class and so I embraced that for many years and while I was in the General Assembly I saw it because a lot of people who were promulgating the whole charter school movement, in my estimation, were not necessarily promulgating it for reasons that would be beneficial to the total population. In some instances, there were people who were trying to use public dollars for elite private education.

But I began to shift -- you know, and I was really impacted by Obama's Philadelphia speech ("A More Perfect Union.") He was under scrutiny because of (the Rev.) Jeremiah Wright and he gave a speech in Philadelphia and talked about how we could not relegate our future to the past. We must always remember our past and we have to celebrate it, teach it to our children, but we always have to move forward to make progress. It was really helpful to me.

But even prior to that, during my last years in the General Assembly, I put together legislation for laboratory schools because I saw that as an opportunity for the universities to help us with our educational program. But I kind of ran into some problems with the author of the charter school bills, who didn't like the idea that I was coming up with laboratory schools because he said, "Well, it's really just a charter school and if going to be a charter school it's going to be mine, be my way." (Laughs) So, I didn't have much luck with that. But we finally did get a laboratory school bill through and we had talked to VCU about trying to get that done, but we've just done so many other things that we haven't done that, but I actually had a conversation with someone from VCU today about getting back to lab schools.

I was chairman of the Richmond City School Board in the '80s and I began to recognize that the same line, the same story, the same analysis of education in Richmond was being given in 2000 and 2010, 2011, '12, '13, that we were given in 1980. I began to recognize that we were just covering up the fact that we don't have the right strategy for good schools and that as a mayor I have a responsibility to call it what it is and to say what needs to be done. The dropout rates don't lie. Graduation rates don't lie and while (standardized test scores) are inadequate, they are a measure. When you find yourself at the bottom of that pile, at some point the preponderance of evidence says, "Something different needs to be done." And so, my feeling is that we are at a point where we cannot afford not to use any vehicle at our disposal to change the outcomes of our public schools, including charter schools. The only thing I'm not on board with is vouchers, but I'm definitely on board with trying to do some charters and some special types of programs in the schools.

There was an article today that reminded me when I was on the School Board we came up with Franklin Military Academy and also Community High School, which still is a good school and Franklin is still a good concept. So we were kind of breaking through, but then we kind of got away from that. But the good news is that you have enough people on the school board now who are open to charters and I think that you are going to see some of that happening in the near future.

How are you defining charters? Would they come under the public school mandate? Would they come before the School Board?

That is the law. The law is you have to come before the School Board and be authorized under the School Board.

One can argue that too many kids have languished in poor public schools for too long, but charter schools can deplete neighborhood schools and there is a movement – which coincides with the movement to return to the city's core-- to strengthen neighborhood schools. How do you see balancing that?

There has to be a balance because charters are not the answer in total. There are good charters and bad charters. There are charters that have succeeded and charters that have failed. And so that's just one of the tools in the toolbox for changing education. I think schools that have STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] curriculum is another one. I think technical schools for young people who just don't have the heart for the academic side, you know, there needs to be a place for them to go. The whole military idea, I think, is an opportunity for us to deal with incorrigible young people to make sure we take that piece out of the public school, that classroom, so that the disruptive child has a place to go and can be reclaimed, but also allow the normalcy of an educational day. With all of the challenges we have, the last thing we need is a disruptive atmosphere, so something has to be done in that regard, as well.

I think that more authority needs to be given to principals to run the schools and to have the resources to make those schools work because they're on the ground and somebody down at central office really can't feel or know what that principal knows and that person has to have the authority and the opportunity to turn on a dime and get things done in their particular school. So, I think the decentralization of power is another extremely important thing. And innovation. We just have got to become more innovative and think outside the box to make sure this thing gets turned around. And the problem is we don't have time to wait. We have to do it quickly. We have to do it with deliberate speed. And so, as we look for a new superintendent, I'm looking for a change agent, a transformer, somebody who's going to come in and take the bull by the horns and start changing things around and that's going to be difficult for a city like Richmond because we have not had any kind of a shake-up. But I think the demographic has changed in the city of Richmond to the point that there are enough people who really want to see the schools succeed and I'm hoping they will be vocal and involved in that process and make sure we get somebody in here that can turn things around. That means we are going to have to pay for somebody that doesn't have to come to Richmond, somebody who is coming to Richmond because you know, we're going to be able to pay with the big boys. We could get somebody who could be in the pipeline for maybe a larger place.

We have to start being honest about where we are. You can fudge things. You can explain things away. When I was on the School Board we talked about the number of free lunches and the fact that we didn't get tax dollars because of the formula and tax dollars because of being the state capital and you know, I had the whole script, the whole speech. But it's time for us to belly up to the bar and recognize that it's just not working.

Moving to the Mayor's Anti-Poverty Commission, how do you foresee persuading people who do not believe themselves affected by poverty to become invested in the success of the commission? Another challenge lies with the people within the communities themselves. They have learned to distrust, not for lack of reason, government and people who are coming in and saying, "We are going to make a difference for you," because they've heard that promise before.

Well, I think we've done a lot already in terms of the work of the commission. It's been well-publicized. Participation has been broad. We've got the academic community, people from the impoverished community on the board, opinion shapers. A lot has been written about it and fortunately, what's been written has been positive and people are kind of embracing the fact that the time has come for us to do something about that.

Now, generally, I recognize it's a hard thing to do because there are a lot of people who say "You know, I don't see it and if I don't see it, I don't need to deal with it." People who have never been across the Martin Luther King Bridge and don't know this is really the tale of two cities. So, that's going to be a tough climb, but the good thing about it is that it's in everybody's best interest. It's in businesses' best interest to work on alleviating poverty because they need people to work in their businesses and in their corporations, and, when we are tackling education, that means that they will have a better-educated workforce that's going to be ready to go to work. We're dealing with workforce initiatives that are going to train people for jobs that really exist and not just training people so we can say they're trained, but actually train them for jobs that exist and that's something that businesses are getting behind. So far, we have good support from the business community on this.

I mean, it's just a bad idea to put all poor people together in one place. It was a bad idea 50 years ago. It's a bad idea today. And some cities have recognized that and they've done something about it. Atlanta, Chicago, even Norfolk is a little bit ahead of us on this particular issue. So, we've got to work on it so the mothers and the kids in those districts get a fair shake. I talk often about growing up in a mixed-income community where I had the opportunity to see success modeled for me as well as failure and I chose to follow the model of success. The way we have it now you don't see any model -- every now and then somebody slips through -- but the basic model is a model of failure. I mean there's no grass (in the housing projects) and so I talk about the fact when it rains you're stepping into mud instead of grass. That's not a good thing. It's something that I'm passionate about. It's something we really have got to do. And I'm going to get it started. I can't finish it but I'm going to get it started. If we can start with two of the public housing -- well we've already started with Highland Grove -- and if we get Creighton Court and Whitcomb Court started in my administration, I'm hoping that it will be so pervasive that the people who follow me will continue because we have -- (turns to look at the conference room wall) -- we used to have up a thing up here on the board with all the housing projects. We have far too much of that, far too much and public housing was never designed for that. It was designed to be temporary. It was not designed to be generational. So, somebody has got to stand up and say, "This has got to change."

The second piece of it is the people who are there. You can understand their distrust. And we can understand their apprehension. At the end of the day, I believe that 90 percent of the people who live in public housing want the same thing I want, want the same thing you want. They want to be safe. They want a good education. They want a chance to move into the middle class. They want to be able to make a decent living. So, it's not something they don't want to do, but they are wondering, "When this happens, what does it mean for me? Will I be able to move back into this neighborhood when it is improved or are you going to throw me away?"

So, we are taking great pains to choose developers who are mission-driven, rather than people who are just bricks-and-mortar driven, and who understand what we are trying to accomplish. We are going to spend a lot of time in the community. The young lady who is head of our Housing Authority, (Adrienne Goolsby, chief executive of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority), we hired her out of Chicago because she's been there, she's done it. And if you can be successful in tearing down Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor houses then you sure should be able to work it out here.

It's Housing and Redevelopment, so she's good on the housing side. She has a connection with residents. I've been to three meetings, I believe. I think I've missed one, but I intend to partner with her, work with her, in going into communities as much as I possibly can and trying to reassure people that if they are willing to work with this new paradigm, we are willing to work with them

Everybody will not be able to get back into the particular place that they leave, but there are other places we can put people -- in affordable units that are in market-rate buildings. There are vouchers, there are other ways to deal with it, but we are not just going to throw people away.

The first meeting we had down there, a young girl raised her hand and said, "I hear what you guys are saying, I just want to know that I'm going to have a part of it, because I don't like being here. I'm just here temporarily. And my chief goal in life is to get the, get the, you know, out of here." And so, sometimes you have only people who have been there in cyclical or generational situations, but there are a lot of people who really recognize that "I gotta get out of here somehow." Even for the people who have been in public housing generationally, we have to work with them and show them a better way. These communities that we want to build are going to be communities where different expectations are going to be. We will be expecting people to get some training, get some jobs, learn how to handle money, to learn what it is to take care of a piece of property. So, we are going to do our part for them, but they have to be willing to do their part for us.

Now, the requisite question about the baseball stadium. Shockoe Bottom as a stadium site has been at least twice rejected. A recent poll shows opposition. Why is it still on the table?

Well, if I answer your question then I'm gonna give you information that nobody has. I will tell you that in a city that has a 26 percent poverty rate that everything we do should be seen through the lens of economic development. So, it's not really to me about a baseball stadium. It's about economic development and it should be about economic development that possibly could include a baseball stadium. And so, you know, if that is one place or another place, it's fine because baseball is not a generator of large amounts of revenue and only 33 percent of the people who go to the baseball stadium are residents of the city of Richmond. So with all of the excitement and all the furor about the baseball stadium, at the end of the day, the baseball stadium doesn't really change or move the city of Richmond forward in terms of really conquering some of our primary problems.

It has to be an economic development project that possibly includes baseball and where that is is not that -- you know, there are only a couple places to work in. So, we'll see what happens with that. It has to be in the context of broadening our tax base. It has to be in the context of creating jobs. It has to be in the context of continuing to trigger the renaissance that is going on in the city. It has to be in the context of using an opportunity like this to redevelop and recraft an entire neighborhood, but not just talking about building a baseball stadium.

So, the question does not begin with a baseball stadium. The question begins with economic development.

Absolutely.

And where the best opportunity for economic development and therefore job creation in the city lies.

Absolutely. Yes. Because we don't have the opportunity to, to ... I mean, we don't have cow fields that we can just go out and spread out and (build) light retail and housing to attract tax dollars, but yet, we are handling the lion's share of poverty for the region. And we're not trying to raise taxes. So, in order for us to have a bright future, we have to expand our tax base. That's got to be number one and that's the way we are going to deal with poverty -- not create a program. We're not going to recreate the Great Society, you know, and just create programs and give people a check. We want to give people an opportunity to change their lives so they can move into the middle class and make Richmond a better city.

So, understanding that the Boulevard is a prime location. If you could get people off 64, all that traffic going to Short Pump, you'd have to do something with the baseball stadium.

(Nods.)

Is Manchester not an option?

Manchester is an option. You know, I'm from the South Side, so I'm partial to the South Side, so I mean I would love to see great development in Manchester and that's one of our opportunities, particularly with the Reynolds Property over there and the organic stuff that is happening over there on Hull Street with the artists, lofts and all that kind of stuff and the courthouse on Commerce and Hull as an anchor. We're beginning to see a lot of creative energy over there. So, that's definitely something I see as possible. It would be great if the discussion we are having now, if Manchester -- not Manchester -- if Reynolds South, if there had been some movement on that and we could get a few more things moving over there, but that's certainly a huge opportunity there. And the best views of the city are from the Southside.

Style: I did not see the site of Lumpkin's Jail and the African Burial Grounds until very recently and they are so hidden away. There's the interstate, the railroad tracks and most of it is a parking lot. I thought, wow, is this all there is? Is this all that marks this site?

Right. Right. There needs to be more.

So what do you foresee?

I foresee it being more.

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