Six months after leaky roofs changed the conversation about how Richmond funds public education, the School Board's first moves toward long-term planning are stirring up a familiar fight.
The board's facilities task force is wrapping up its study of an estimated $35 million in maintenance needs across the district's 48 facilities and starting to take a hard look at which schools it could close.
No formal plan has been announced. But so far Binford Middle School in the Fan appears to be the only candidate for closure. Only 215 students, or about one-third of the school's intended capacity, are enrolled there. It's also at risk of losing its accreditation after posting consistently poor Standards of Learning test scores.
Another option is to reconfigure Binford into an all-international baccalaureate magnet school.
"If you're at one-third capacity you can't hire one-third of a principal, you can't pay one-third of the electric bill," says 2nd District Representative Kim Gray, who serves as co-chairwoman of the facilities task force. "But we're paying 100 percent of the cost."
In a school district still working to overcome systematic racism, some people place greater emphasis on other numbers. Richmond's open enrollment means that students aren't required to attend schools within their districts. Closing Binford or reconfiguring it as a magnet school would require rezoning students elsewhere.
That would force the school's 90-percent black population out of a mostly white neighborhood, 5th District Representative Mamie Taylor says.
"Until you make things better for the least of us, it will never be better for all of us," Taylor says. "All of our schools should be great, but the focus now seems to be creating special schools in special neighborhoods — and using rezoning to facilitate that."
The Binford question has renewed a nearly two-year-long dispute about how the board approaches which schools to shutter. Binford is in the same district that lost Clark Springs Elementary in 2013 after the School Board closed it with a 5-4 vote to address a funding gap.
Former Clark Springs parent Kimberly Jones sued the School Board last year to force the school to reopen. Her lawyer, Charlie Schmidt, says that Taylor and 8th District Representative Tichi Pinkney-Eppes will testify in January that some of their colleagues conspired to redraw boundaries to cluster white students together following the school's closure.
The board members targeted in the suit — Gray, Glen Sturtevant and Kristen Larson — have maintained that their process to determine the new boundaries in the wake of Clark Springs' closure was transparent and that there was no scheme to cluster students.
But Taylor says she fears the same backroom planning is happening again. She says Binford's population has been purposely reduced by no longer busing children from the South Side to the school in the wake of lost federal funding — money that easily could have come from the board's budget. Closing Binford, or making it a school where students would have to test in, she says, would do more damage.
"Even though you can't arrange students in a school environment based on race, the unfortunate situation is many of our neighborhoods are segregated," Taylor says. "If you're pooling segregated neighborhoods into a school, you're mirroring what the city looks like. Even if it's not your intent, the outcome is the same: The school will be more segregated than it already is."
While Superintendent Dana Bedden was viewed as a unifying figure when he started in January, Taylor says he's now playing politics. She says Bedden discouraged her from attending a recent Binford parent meeting only to find Gray there when she showed up.
Gray says there's no conspiracy, and that she's rattled by the lingering accusation that her actions are racially motivated.
"I care about black children," Gray says. "I'm a black woman. I've raised seven through Richmond Public Schools. To say we're creating pockets for white families is ridiculous."
"We're trying to find a way to keep Binford within our stock and still be viable," Gray adds. "We're going to be having discussion about alternative options. That's been very transparent."
Superintendent Bedden denies telling Taylor to skip the Binford parent meeting, and that it's up to the board to decide the fate of the school.
"We're bringing a plan to effectively maximize the school," he says, "and the board has to tell us which way they want to go."
While the board continues to be divided over the Clark Springs decision, Gray says she isn't concerned about moving forward with a plan for Binford.
"I'm not worried at all," she says. "I've got strong, logical, intelligent people who sit beside me on that board every day who will make the right decisions. Spending money on empty seats is not the right thing to do."
Bedden says that while he makes plans to shore up Binford and waits for direction from the School Board, he has one word that sums up how he feels about the infighting and the accusations from Taylor: "Frustrated. I'm frustrated with the distractions." S