Time to Bring on the Bigger Dogs 

By the end of the next School Board meeting, it could be all over for the Patrick Henry School.

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Short of a reprieve from Governor Bob McDonnell or a last-minute assist from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama, it appears that the City of Richmond's first and only proposed charter school -- The Patrick Henry School for Science and Art (PHSSA) -- is DOA. By the end of the next School Board meeting, it could be all over but the shouting.

Even if the school had all the money it needs to hire a staff, purchase proper educational materials and satisfy the demands of Virginia charter school law, the stalwart group of true believers in the PHSSA appear to be on a collision course with a school system that is perversely using its own flagrant violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act to kill the competition it fears, thus denying hope and change to yet another generation of Richmond schoolchildren.

Sadly, this is nothing new. Ever since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the City of Richmond School Board has had far more candidates for "Profiles in Cowardice" than for "Profiles in Courage." This ugly tradition, like many others in this former Capitol of the Confederacy and birthplace of Massive Resistance, continues unabated into the 21st-Century.

Having witnessed former Richmond School Board Chairman George Braxton lose his temper and accuse the ADA plaintiffs -- face-to-face -- of being more concerned about improving "crappy" schools than building yet-to-be-funded new schools, I was sure I had seen the most shameful behavior of a Richmond School Board chairman against parents who simply wanted to have their children educated and treated equally in our schools.

That was before I read the recent letter sent by the new chair of the board, Kimberly Bridges, to the members of the PHSSA. The passive-aggressive timing of the letter (seven months from when PHSSA is scheduled to open) and its condescending tone demonstrate disrespect equal to that displayed by Braxton, but made more offensive by a cold and calculating hypocrisy. At least Braxton could blame his outburst on the heat of the moment.

Consider this: January 17th marked the fourth anniversary of the night that the Richmond School Board unanimously approved the terms of a Settlement Agreement in which the board promised, among other things, to use its "best efforts" to satisfy the five-year agreement with the ADA plaintiffs that would (at long last) bring our schools into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. [Historical note: the ADA was passed July 20, 1990, almost 20 years ago.]

Just how much progress have the "best efforts" of this board achieved since the agreement was signed and U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson ordered RPS to make our schools and playgrounds handicapped accessible?

Precious little. In blunt terms, after four years this board has thus far failed to satisfy even the promises for "Year One."

Worse, in a dizzying display of governmental waste, RPS has spent more than one million dollars simply having "design work" done. A sampling of some of the most outrageous and nonsensical payments include:

$29,000 to design a ramp at Overby-Sheppard School;
$19,950 to design a ramp at Redd Elementary School;
$66,780 to design an accessible bathroom at Chimborazo Elementary School and move the Clinic to the gymnasium;
$36,900 to design an accessible bathroom at Ginter Park Elementary School;
$19,726.50 to design an accessible bathroom at Armstrong High School;
nearly $9,000 per school to do "elevator feasibility studies" at five different schools;
$6,500 to design a handicapped parking place at Mary Scott School;
to see the complete list, click this link.

This is the same board and administration that spent close to a quarter million dollars fixing up Richmond Community High School, a school that it knew would be closed within a year. There was also that nasty elevator procurement mess for Community that generated plenty of media attention from Chris Dovi at Style Weekly and Zach Reid at The Richmond Times Dispatch, but no indictments. Read lawyer John Butcher's trenchant "O Come All Ye Lawyers" and "Incompetence -- Or Worse?" at his CrankyTaxpayer website for an excellent analysis of what went wrong and engineer Jonathan Mallard's take on the board's inability to construct a coherent RFP, much less an intelligent plan for fixing the schools.

All this is necessary information for one to be able to appreciate the cloying hypocrisy of Bridges' words to the PHSSA, most especially when she expresses the board's "great concern" that it not be placed in a position that would cause it "to violate the consent decree [sic]."

Mind you, I am so relieved to see the board is concerned about obeying the law. By my rough accounting, RPS has received approximately $11.4 million dollars for ADA compliance work since 2006, spent over a million on design, and, save a new elevator at Fox Elementary, taken no significant steps to actually make any school handicapped accessible. What happened to the other $10+ million? Also, no one seems to recall that the board promised to post an online accounting of all monies received for ADA work and how those monies were spent.

Given this situation, an investigation and an audit of the ADA finances appears to be needed.

Meanwhile, I hope the good people who have worked hard to bring the PHSSA into reality will ask the School Board why it waited until now to put into writing concerns that have been discussed since the idea of using the Patrick Henry building for the charter school was first broached.

It is absolutely stupefying how this board could even attempt to claim high moral ground in the PHSSA letter, considering they have repeatedly dealt in bad faith with the ADA plaintiffs and with the court. During closed session discussions prior to signing the contract to lease this building to the PHSSA, I advised my colleagues and RPS administrators to be fully forthcoming concerning the legal requirements to bring the Patrick Henry building into compliance with the ADA. Much to the amusement of those present, the former vice-chair of the board, Lisa Dawson, dismissed my suggestion outright stating that if the charter people "want to play with the big dogs, they need to learn on their own."

Here's hoping the PHSSA folks can find some bigger dogs to help them realize their goal, and to hold the attack hounds of RPS at bay.

Carol A.O. Wolf served on the City of Richmond Public School Board from 2002-2008. She also is a former print journalist who has worked for The Denver Post, Jack Anderson's "Merry-Go-Round" in Washington, D.C., The Richmond News Leader and Style Weekly. She is the mother of three, grandmother of two, and blogs on public education and disability issues at http://saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com/


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