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OPINION: Richmond Must Choose Between Better Schools or a Better Bond Rating 

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Richmond students, 90 percent of them minority and overwhelmingly from African-American families with modest incomes, are being subjected to a cruel educational hoax.

Recently the president of the United States — albeit the one on the television series "Homeland" filmed in Richmond — agreed with me. She said decrepitly crumbling conditions in our public schools demanded a plan to fix them.

This city faces a bottom-line policy choice: We can have either Triple-A public school facilities or a Triple-A bond rating on Wall Street.

Wall Street won't give the AAA rating unless the city has in place binding measures to severely limit the amount of new construction bonds. This makes a system-wide fix impossible. Our elected officials know this and have privately complied while publicly lamenting that their hands are tied.

It's a binary, either-or financial choice right now. Once made, there is no turning back. Unless you're knowledgeable in public finance, this fundamental duality cannot be appreciated.

Apparently our elected officials, their key advisors and others have chosen to pursue Wall Street's blessing or decided — because the choice can't be justified given the educational need — to remain blissfully uninformed in case the truth is exposed.

So let's expose it here and now.

In 1955, the Brown v. Board of Education II decision ordered Virginia localities to fix "problems … arising from the physical condition of the school plant" contributing to unequal educational opportunities. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Education is the great equalizer." Richmond residents are eager to end this injustice.

The winning candidates in our 2016 election called the situation morally indefensible. They pledged a fully funded, system-wide plan to fix it. Then last year, Democratic Richmond overwhelmingly backed the School Modernization Referendum demanding action. And this year, the Republican General Assembly unanimously voted to put this unprecedented public initiative into Richmond's charter.

Yet Mayor Levar Stoney's 2019 budget message says he "continues to invest in becoming a Triple-AAA bond rated city." His 2020 budget lists "Increase Bond Rating to AAA" as a key goal. The promised school modernization plan vanished. He boasts revenues from his meals-tax increase go to school modernization. But he fails to say his proposal actually leaves 80 percent to 90 percent of school buildings to deteriorate until at least 2024.

The federal and state role in financing school construction is minor. The responsibility to provide quality, modern facilities rests with localities. The Constitution of Virginia says Richmond has ample financial resources to support the school construction bonds needed to meet this responsibility. But our leaders remain obsessed for personal and political reasons with that Triple-A bond rating — even though Richmond is already rated AA+.

Moreover, they realize that if their complicity with Wall Street is ever known, the public will become outraged. Therefore City Hall disingenuously misleads by saying it would do far more, but only a magic wand could find any budget item with money to be re-prioritized and then redirect it to finance school modernization.

How about this for a magic wand: A review of online city documents finds 41 items totaling more than $18 million. Here are five examples:

1. Unnecessary conference, dues and food expenses totaling $165,000.

2. A continuing $500,000 the Dominion Arts Center operating subsidy despite project backers' guaranteeing to cover these costs years ago.

3. Achievable administrative efficiencies in the Richmond Public Schools that would save $850,000 in these areas, as others have noted: chief academic officer, driver administration, instruction, safety security, School Board, state and national testing office, superintendent, and transportation. This equals only six-tenths of a percent of city school funding.

4. Altria receives $1.25 million annually as part of its relocation deal. When the payment ends in 2019, this line item then can be re-prioritized for school modernization.

5. Richmond has 3,600 direct employees. My review finds that cutting fewer than 1 percent of positions, 32, would save $2.49 million annually.

City leaders likewise justified ramming through the record meals-tax increase because they couldn't find money elsewhere for school modernization. Scouring every budget item admittedly requires painstaking work. It then takes financial discipline to ensure these re-prioritized funds are secured annually to pay off 30-year bonds.

But our leaders reject this fiscally responsible approach. Instead, they float the canard that even if we wanted to do more, the only way to do it is by raising taxes.

Accordingly the push now is to impose a cigarette tax as the next magic elixir. Don't be fooled: Even if you added a record cigarette tax to the record meals tax, ending 63 years of broken promises on school modernization will require raising perhaps an additional $1 billion in new taxes.

A billion? Yes, by proponents' own projections. There are the construction costs, paying off the borrowing costs on those 30-year bonds, maintaining the crumbling buildings until repaired. The School Board says it needs $800 million for construction, and borrowing could add another $800 million. The meals tax might bring in $350 million to $400 million in 30 years. The cigarette tax could be another $150 million.

Bottom line: A tax-only solution isn't realistic. It's a con game from elected officials to provide cover for reneging on the promised, fully funded, school modernization plan that leaves no child or community behind. S

Paul Goldman is the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

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

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