Building Blocks 

Opinion: Contrary to Mayor Jones' suggestions, "right-sizing" schools while growing our city is contradictory.

click to enlarge back35_right_sizing_schools.jpg

Anyone who's been in, driven past or read about a Richmond Public School building in the last decade knows that our schools need a little TLC — about $35 million worth, according to a recent independent facilities report.

In spite of the general public's awareness, Mayor Dwight C. Jones' administration suggests this news comes as a shock. And in response, Jones suggests that rather than spend city funds on repairs and upkeep, the Richmond Public Schools needed to right-size themselves.

An interesting choice of words, Mr. Mayor: right-sizing.

This loaded term comes, not unlike many ideas being applied to public education these days, from the corporate boardrooms of private, for-profit industry.

To right-size, quite simply, is to reduce employee numbers so that the work force is equal to the amount of work that needs doing. Is our workload in educating our children shrinking? Are we hoping for a decrease in student population after the past few years of steady increase?

In government, right-sizing has yet another loaded meaning, with no better connotations attached. Most frequently we see right-sizing applied to programs and efforts in cities such as Detroit — the most distressed cities in our nation, where right-sizing has involved the often-forced relocation of populations of neighborhoods and families into more densely populated areas for the purpose of cutting costs.

Is right-sizing really the word you're looking for, Mr. Mayor?

I agree with Jones that we need to work smarter and harder to better allocate taxpayer dollars in ways that best benefit our children. But it begs the question: How can a mayor committed to our kids support spending nearly $30 million to tear down and build a new Overby-Sheppard Elementary, a 30-something-year-old building, without any consideration for the children who attend J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, a nearly 100-year-old building less than two miles away.

Stuart, a school that's equally in need of our care, has had no major improvements or renovations since it was built. Too bad it isn't located in the heart of a housing development pet project that the city administration is underwriting with our taxes.

Coincidentally, the Richmond Public Schools have more than $35 million in capital needs that address the critical health, safety and welfare needs of our students at schools such as Stuart.

It's true that Jones increased significantly the capital allocation to schools in the city budget to $7 million this year. That goes a long way to making up for his previous year's allocation of just $500,000. But it goes not quite as far as we thought, because the schools recently received a bill from the mayor's office for $1 million to pay supposedly unpaid storm water runoff fees and penalties.

That's right-sizing, all right. Every year that passes without our city leaders' cooperation to address these critical facilities concerns, the crisis grows. Old buildings grow older. Neglect becomes decay. Decay becomes dangerous conditions. Eventually we're forced to spend more money than had we simply and responsibly addressed maintenance on the front end.

The mayor has pledged his commitment to building a better Richmond, and he works hard to honor that commitment to us. Richmonders all agree that the city needs redevelopment in these areas to move us forward.

But economic development projects unsupported by infrastructure investments rarely succeed. Cities are made up of systems, and systems have to work together. Amenities and shops attract residents to the city. Schools keep them. Schools make them strong.

Right-sizing schools while growing our city is contradictory. The mayor's spokeswoman, Tammy Hawley, recently wrote that "it would not be good stewardship of taxpayer funds to invest in properties that should not be in operation."

I think of children attending J.E.B. Stuart when I consider her words. And children at George Washington Carver. And at Fairfield. Swansboro. Mason. Green. Elkhart. Ginter Park. Fox. Thompson. The list goes on.

Which of these children's schools should not be in operation? One of them? Two of them? All of them?

As we plan for the future when we can build new schools to replace all these ancient facilities, do we simply — as the mayor's spokeswoman seems to suggest — not throw good money after bad? Children are in these schools today. And they will be in these schools until the day that new schools are built.

In meetings I've had with the mayor's administration, officials have expressed their praiseworthy goal to increase Richmond's population to 250,000 people. I share this goal, and pledge to work with them to build a Richmond that attracts families. I'd like to see the Richmond Public Schools grow along with the city — not only becoming a welcoming place for the children of new families, but perhaps enticing back some of the families already here who today choose private or other options over our public schools.

Healthy growth can't happen if we're just stretching in different directions. We know the best means of helping children grow is surrounding them with caring, compassionate and competent adults working together. Let's all work together. Not to right-size our schools, but to do right for our schools and our community. S

Kim Gray represents Richmond's 2nd District on the School Board.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer, and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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