Planet Wilder 

The mayor nixes schools from the future and decides to use $200 million for yet-to-be-determined projects.

click to enlarge news50_schools_100.jpg

They may teach the future, but Richmond City Public Schools are not part of the City of the Future, or so says Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. His decision last week to cut schools out of his broader initiative to revitalize the city was greeted by many as just another day on Planet Wilder.

It's a decision that encapsulates two years of very little forward momentum for the mayor's various initiatives and, to some, makes the year-old City of the Future plan look a lot like science fiction.

"That's our concern — we get all this rhetoric, and ultimately, two years later, nothing has happened," says Tichi Pinkney Eppes, president of Richmond Council of PTAs. "How do you cut the schools out of the [City of the Future]?"

While the elected officials argue, each claiming the moral high ground and the support of the citizens, the needs of the citizens — in this case parents — are beginning to fall through the cracks, Pinkney Eppes says.

"As a parent, we kind of feel left out," she says. "The mayor — we appreciate the fact that the mayor is concerned — however, we have not been included in that process. He hasn't invited the parents to the table."

Now it appears Wilder is sitting at the table alone, having uninvited school officials. At a City Hall press conference Dec. 5, he made jaws drop by accusing the Richmond School Board and the school administration of being obstructionist — failing to close 11 schools as he'd outlined and refusing to restructure administration to cut waste and combine overlapping city and school administrative functions.

But it's the punishment that Wilder has meted out for this disobedience that has Pinkney Eppes most concerned. Wilder announced that $200 million he'd planned to spend building or renovating 15 schools would instead be directed elsewhere.

He also threatened to withhold funds for routine maintenance of existing schools and for paying for Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades required by a lawsuit settled last year, according to the interpretation of his statements by School Board officials. They worry that this amounts to a pressure play aimed at forcing them to close schools.

"I would be concerned about the implication of withholding any money." Pinkney Eppes says. "I would be concerned that he would talk about withholding money, and ultimately, it's detrimental to the children."

Detrimental, maybe, but also a long time coming, says one School Board member who's aligned himself with the mayor.

Schools officials are "not willing to bite the political bullet," says School Board member Reggie Malone Sr., calling the city's decaying school buildings a "deep dark hole" that has been swallowing money for years. He says the administration's own lack of planning in the past has put schools "in this position" of maintaining 50 schools for a dwindling population of students.

Wilder himself has called the act of cutting schools out of the City of the Future "unfair, not right, improper," but lays the blame with school officials.

But that's where things get dicey. For many, Wilder's power play with the School Board goes too far. After all, it's been a year, and the mayor has yet to produce any actual facilities plan with specifics on how the City of the Future would be implemented. In December 2005, Wilder told a Style reporter the plan soon would be available for public inspection, even online.

In fact, the current ruckus started in earnest when School Board Chairman David L. Ballard attempted to get the mayor's office to cough up details about the City of the Future with a Freedom of Information Act request in April. Wilder promptly declared the School Board uncooperative and refused to release anything.

"I will give you a military analogy," says Ballard, calling Wilder's indictment of school leaders "a chaff rocket."

"A chaff rocket is something you launch to draw a military missile off the target," Ballard says, accusing this particular flair launch of being used to draw notice away from "the inattention of the city on infrastructure issues."

Meanwhile, Wilder has instructed his staff to proceed with his City of the Future plans, whatever they may be. City Administrator William Harrell says project management teams and details for financing yet-to-be-determined projects would be put in place within the month to move forward with the City of the Future initiative — minus any new schools.

Ballard says he was shocked at the mayor's decision last week. He says the School Board approved a capital improvement plan that included the $200 million City of the Future funding and that they thought was in line with Wilder's plan.

Wilder dismissed their proposal, and then lashed out when schools Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman missed the hastily scheduled conference — she was informed of the meeting by local media outlets, according to a schools spokesperson. She had a scheduled meeting with Norfolk Public Schools officials, which prompted Wilder to comment that Jewell-Sherman felt it was "more important to help Norfolk than to help Richmond."

These sorts of mean-spirited digs have become a part of official dialogue, but they produce nothing, Richmond Council of PTAs president Pinkney Eppes says.

"We are so tired of this blame game being played out on TV. What message are we really sending the children?" she asks. "That we adults don't even know how to work together."

Tom Shields, director of the Center for Leadership in Education at the University of Richmond, says the mayor's modus operandi to "constantly create some sort of political spectacle" and then see what happens may backfire this time.

"He's now doing it with schools," Shields says. "I think some people would say, 'Is that the best way to govern, by taking money away from our schools, particularly at a time now when education is becoming more relevant in the city?'"

The issue can be polarizing, especially for those younger families who have moved back to the city amid the residential renaissance of the past decade. "People don't want to move out of the city when their kids reach a certain age," Shields says.

Perhaps most disturbing to Shields has been the lack of public input. The mayor doesn't make his education committees open to the public — it isn't required by law, unlike committees established by governing bodies such as the School Board and City Council.

All this creates an impossible scenario, one that defies logic on many levels. Not only is the plan unknown, but its costs seem unrealistic to many. The average new high school in Chesterfield or Henrico costs $75 million to $80 million, so how will the city build 11 to 15 new schools for $200 million or even $250 million?

Not to mention the logistics of relocating schoolchildren.

"If you did this in the suburbs, there would be a huge outpouring of grief," Shields says. "That's the biggest thing that should concern people. … They have no way of weighing in."

It may seem harsh, but tough tactics might be the strong medicine necessary to cure Richmond Schools' ills, says former schools superintendent for Chesterfield and Henrico counties William C. Bosher. He's executive director of the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute and a professor in the VCU School of Education.

Mayor Wilder has a point, Bosher says. He has the power to make things happen in this situation, he says, a point that seems lost on the School Board and City Council.

"We could debate the pros and cons of whether [Wilder's is] the right strategy, but I think the mayor has clearly ratcheted up the pressure," Bosher says. "I think reasonably so because there's got to be something that breaks this logjam."

The problem may be the logjam. At the close of Wilder's second year in office, his most significant contributions appear to be ... logjams.

Perhaps there is some sort of reconciliation in the offing, though. Ongoing strife with Wilder has created new bonds between elected School Board members and their counterparts on City Council.

"I see that relationship between School Board and City Council only getting better," Ballard says, crediting Wilder as a unifying force.

"The words 'common enemy' have also been used," School Board member Lisa Dawson agreed. S

News Editor Scott Bass contributed to this story.

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