Richmond City Council's capital improvement budget includes a fine surprise for students with disabilities: $5 million designated for the retrofitting of Richmond Public Schools facilities that are 18 years late in complying with federal law.
That money, combined with about $2 million already amassed largely through the efforts of School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf and a group of parents who won a lawsuit against the district years ago, will go a long way toward jumpstarting projects that have sat on hold for years.
"It was expected -- I completely expected it," says Vicki Beatty, whose son Davis attends John B. Cary Elementary School because his reliance on a walker makes his home school William Fox Elementary inaccessible. "I do appreciate that every single City Council member knew that it had to be done, and I think a 9-to-0 vote shows that."
The money, she says, will cover all of the projects slated to be completed during the first year of a settlement agreement signed by the Richmond School Board and the parents who sued. The funds may even "start touching into [projects] in the second year."
City Council's decision is a long way from where the city was two years ago, when Mayor L. Douglas Wilder went to court to successfully fight the School Board's settlement in the case, separating the city's finances from the school system's and essentially making the city unaccountable for ensuring access for all Richmond children.
But it's too little, too late for Davis Beatty. The 13-year-old will never attend Fox.
"If this had all been taken care of four years ago? Yeah, he'd go there," says his mother, explaining that her son has made too many friends at Cary to go back to Fox.
As soon as the school system receives the funds from the city, according to Wolf, they will be put into an account designated for making improvements to the system's nearly 50 schools facilities that current don't comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Assurance that the money ends up in the right account is important to Beatty.
"The bottom line is the history shows that when they designated money to ADA projects in the past, they have not used the money for ADA," she says, comparing past ADA funding accounts to the school system's rainy day fund. "If they had used it right in the past, Fox Elementary would have two elevators right now."
In the past, the School Board funded the elevator project twice, but to date there is no elevator. Another still-uninstalled elevator at Ginter Park Elementary has also been funded twice.
Wolf, who was the lone appointee last year to a subcommittee charged with finding funding sources for ADA improvements, sweated the budget victory all the way to the wire when the Council voted.
"Pretty good for a committee of one," she says. "It took us a while, but it looks like this is the beginning. It won't take us all the way, though."
Not by a mile. A 2005 report put the total cost at $18.3 million to retrofit Richmond Public Schools.
There are hundreds of projects necessary to bring all Richmond schools up to ADA compliance, Beatty says. Some are big, some are small. All represent equal access to a child, parent, grandparent or teacher who currently can't get into a building or a bathroom or a classroom.
Beatty suggests that City Council and the School Board create an account that yearly is funded as part of the course of doing business, and that funding continue until all required projects are done. Until that step is taken, she says, parents will be put in the uncomfortable situation of returning each year to "beg for money."
Wolf is already looking for funding that would go a long way to filling that hypothetical ADA account. Prior to the Council vote, she said she plans to ask the School Board to sell two warehouses that could net the school district "about $9 million."
Both buildings were highlighted by City Auditor Umesh Dalal as possible sources of revenue through sales in his recently released audit of school finance and purchasing.
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