Firing Back 

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Though intended to be explosive, the letter bomb dropped on City Hall by members of the Richmond business community last week was a real dud, according to critics, including the city's largest organization of school parents.

"It's almost a slap in the face," says Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, president of the Richmond Council of PTAs. "[The letter is] saying the person who comes to the table with the most money should be the one in charge?"

"The Letter," as it's come to be known in Richmond and on numerous editorial pages around the state, arrived last week at City Hall addressed to Mayor Doug Wilder and City Council.

Its unilateral call, sounded by 26 of the region's business elite, is for an end to elected school boards and a return to an updated version of the appointed school boards of yesteryear -- with terms favorable to the city's executive branch.

None of the 26 signers contacted the PTA, Pinkney-Eppes says, which speaks volumes about the letter's broader proposal. "You don't include us," she says. "You think you know everything that's right for our children."

Pinkney-Eppes says she's excited that leaders of some of the region's largest companies might lend their muscle to improving Richmond schools. While she says she'd like to cooperate with them, she wants parents to be invited to the table early — and she doesn't want citizens to lose the right to elect their School Board members.

Her sentiment apparently is shared widely by those who might be disenfranchised if council were to act on the letter's proposal, which requests that the 2008 General Assembly session nullify the city's elected School Board.

City Councilwoman Kathy Graziano agrees that schools need help and that opening a conversation about schools is good.

"But I went to, coincidentally, three civic meetings since this [letter]," Graziano says. "At first blush, there is overwhelming resistance. People feel that they went to the polls to get the ability to vote for their School Board members, and they don't want that taken away from them."

In November 1993, Richmonders voted for the right to elect their School Board representatives. They didn't just whisper their desire. Much as when they awarded Wilder 80 percent of the vote in the mayoral election, nearly 82 percent of the 45,457 votes cast approved of the proposal, according to records maintained by the Richmond Voter Registrar's office.

"The citizens of the city need to remind Mayor Wilder and his pals that before Wilder ever received his 80 percent mandate, the elected School Board was approved by more than 80 percent," says 3rd District School Board representative Carol Wolf, suggesting that business leaders didn't look hard enough when they went searching for the root of recent school woes. "[Wilder] needs to figure out how to work with this board in a mature fashion."

Wolf also questions why some of the letter's signers would believe their opinions should count more than those of any other voter — and that maybe those opinions are worth less — in sending such a petition to the mayor.

"How many of these people who are bearding this proposal live in the city, have ever sent their kids to city schools, have spent any time in a city school … employ children from Richmond or their parents?" Wolf asks. (See sidebar)

And how many have a full accounting of the facts, asks School Board Vice Chairwoman Lisa Dawson. The letter cites, among other alarming statistics, a high per-pupil cost of more than $10,500 a year, nearly half of which is applied to covering administrative costs.

"Do they make their important corporate decisions by looking at information from three years ago?" Dawson asks, noting the figures cited are from 2004.

The current board apportioned 75.72 percent of its per-pupil expenditures to instruction in the 2007-08 budget, Dawson says. During 2006-07, the School Board had already raised that ratio to more than 70 percent going to instruction.

Administration, attendance and health costs account for only 5.2 percent of yearly per-pupil expenditure.

The letter-signers defend their facts and their broader point, saying they represent the region's major employers, many of whom have lost faith in Richmond Public Schools as a provider of reliable workers.

Other signers have since said the letter's proposal was simply a call to open a broader debate on the issue of improving city schools.

"I think this is part of the dialogue," says Robert J. Grey Jr., a partner at Hunton & Williams law firm and one of the signers.

"Maybe it feels like it came out of left field," concedes John B. Adams Jr., another letter-signer, who is chairman and chief executive of Richmond-based national advertising firm The Martin Agency. "But the situation regarding the schools is one that has been on a lot of people's minds for a long time. [The letter] originated out of a sense of concern — and really, alarm."

The letter isn't "attempting to shanghai anybody," Adams says. "What this group is attempting to do is create a dialogue. Our point was to begin a conversation on this issue of accountability. Just as any citizen can speak out — how about this solution as an opener? — that's what this group has done."

But whether this dialogue got off to a healthy start may frame whatever debate may result, Councilwoman Graziano says.

"I think as long as influential people continue to ignore the progress that the schools have made, it is encouraging a lack of confidence in people to send their children to public schools," she says. "No school system is perfect."

Pinkney-Eppes goes further in criticizing the letter-writers, suggesting either they are either badly misinformed about where Richmond Public Schools problems lie or they might have other motives.

"What is significantly going to change if we have an elected school board or an appointed school board?" she asks, pointing to politics as the only answer.

Pinkney-Eppes says the letter's proposed solution hands over control of a newly constituted appointed school board to the mayor.

One City Council insider who declined to be identified says there's little coincidence that many letter-signers are closely connected to the Richmond CenterStage project.

Among them is Thomas Farrell II, chairman, president and CEO of Dominion Resources, who also chairs RPAC Inc., the nonprofit overseeing the CenterStage project. Farrell is cited by various other signers as having approached them about adding their names to the letter. Farrell, who is traveling abroad, was unavailable for comment.

"Is there quid pro quo there?" asks the anonymous City Council official, suggesting Wilder is getting support he'd like from the business leaders in exchange for greasing the wheels of the CenterStage project.

On Monday, council members received the letter, and "on Friday," the insider says, "Wilder asked for council to hold special hearings to approve the CenterStage agreement."

Wilder's former chief policy adviser, Paul Goldman, also asked the question: "Is this quid pro quo? The arts center in exchange for the School Board?" S

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