School bus driver makes eloquent, but probably futile, appeal for pay hike ... 

Street Talk

Bus Driver Makes Case for Pay Hike
Tech Center Hits the Pavement
Boys Choir Lauds New Office
Bit Part Equals Series Deal for Richmond Native
Buried Tracks Recall a Clang

Bus Driver Makes Case for Pay Hike

fter catching an hour of public-hearing hell on decisions to close schools, move students and provide meager raises to veteran employees while offering double-digit-percentage pay scale increases to attract new ones, Richmond School Board Chairman Mark Emblidge might have snapped at the last speaker, a man who was not on the official list, when he stood at the end of the public comment period to ask for a chance to plead his case.

But, magnanimously or wearily, Emblidge allowed the man to the podium, where he provided some much-needed comic relief that had even the school board smiling and the capacity crowd in the William Fox Elementary School auditorium on their feet.

Irvin Banks, 50, a city schools bus driver for nearly 25 years, said he had not had time to get on the speakers list for last week's school board meeting because he had been working 15-hour days recently — a problem caused by the shortage of new drivers that Emblidge says a proposed 27 percent pay scale increase for new drivers will alleviate.

But Banks argued that, compared with the slated 2 percent raise for veteran non-teaching staff such as himself, the 27 percent plan insults senior staff and ultimately will not retain new drivers. He says many new hires use the school system to earn their commercial driver's licenses, then depart for better-paying private sector jobs.

"I ain't too proud to beg," he said repeatedly to audience cheers while making his case for a $2-an-hour raise (he makes about $13 an hour now) and a 40-hour-a-week contract vs. the current 30-hour deal. He feels the school board is taking advantage of senior employees' dedication, a policy he says also discourages some drivers from staying with city schools, along with its increasingly troublesome student riders.

But Banks told the school board he isn't going anywhere. "This is my calling," he said. "God called me and said, 'Irvin Banks, I want you to drive a school bus.'"

It brought a standing ovation, and even Emblidge had to smile. But after the meeting he and Richmond Education Association President Richard Gray said the 2 percent package is all but a done deal. "The feeling is that if you [increase that] for our bus drivers you've got to do it for our custodians and everybody else," Emblidge says.
— Rob Morano

Tech Center Hits the Pavement

To Shockoe Bottom passersby it's just another sidewalk.

But to developer Sam McDonald and students from the Richmond Technical Center, it's a first.

When McDonald purchased the 1849-circa Enders Warehouse Building at 20 N. 20th Street with plans to develop it into 11 upscale apartments, he was ready for some elbow grease. But he wasn't prepared to fix his own sidewalk.

"I tried to get support from the city," says McDonald, to repair the cobblestones and sidewalk area that sloped indistinguishably to 20th Street behind the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. But an appeal to the city's Department of Public Works and his city council person, Delores McQuinn, was met with little promise of money and even fewer resources. Then McQuinn suggested that McDonald contact a technical school to see if the work could be done for free in exchange for students gaining much needed experience.

McDonald took McQuinn's advice and contacted the Richmond Technical Center.

"It's a great community service and this is our first time doing this," says the technical center's principal, J. Austin Brown. According to Brown, McDonald and the city have come up with the money and materials and the students now are getting busy.

Each morning at 9:30 a.m. between two and 10 high-school students arrive with brick masonry teacher Bradford Barrows to work on the sidewalk — pouring concrete, repairing and replacing cobblestones — for about an hour. Barrows returns again with a second class each afternoon.

"Kids supply the labor, the city supplies materials and instruction from its Score Team [its street and sidewalk repair crew] and brings in a contractor to do the heavy-duty work. And I kicked in, too," says McDonald. Now McDonald's sidewalk will be repaired in just a few weeks. Students at the Richmond Technical Center also are working to build two houses in Church Hill on a project with Interfaith Housing Corporation. And according to McDonald, teaming up with the technical center has been a great solution to his sidewalk problem. "It's an all-around win."
— Brandon Walters

Boys Choir Lauds New Office

After four seasons of making joyful noises from the Theatre IV building at 114 W. Broad St., the Richmond Boys Choir is about to get new digs.

"I'm at the upholsterer's now," says Brian C. Little, the Richmond Boys Club's executive director, from his indispensable cell phone. "I'm also in the throes of painters, carpenters and contractors."

Already the choir's administrative offices have glided across Broad to the former site of interior design group, Renmark and Associates, which recently moved to Church Hill.

"We've been looking for a new space for over a year," says Little. "As an interim move, we only had to go half a block and it was offered at a reasonable price."

At the Theatre IV location, the group's office space was one 7-by-21-foot room that was shared by all staff members. "With five people coming and going," says Little, "it became unhealthy."

Composed of 56 area boys 7 to 18, the Richmond Boys Choir has grown in just four years into a full-time program with twice weekly practices, dozens of performances and "personal development" days one Saturday each month.

"The space at Theatre IV has been wonderful," says Little. "Basically we've just outgrown it. We're still looking for additional rehearsal space," he adds. "And we're taking all bids."
— B.W.

Bit Part Equals Series Deal for Richmond Native

"I sat in the theater, waiting and waiting," Veanne Cox says of watching "Erin Brockovich," "and two thirds of the way into the movie, there I was. I've gotten a lot of attention for a very small role." Attention is right: The Richmond native got raves from The New York Times, Time magazine, even the irascible Gene Shalit of the "Today" show, for her 10-minute part as an attorney in the hit Julia Roberts flick. "In New York, I'm almost a household name in the theater, so it's kind of strange to be getting this much attention for a small film role."

Not that she's complaining. Since the actress graduated from Manchester High School, Class of 1981, she's worked nonstop, first dancing with the Washington Ballet and then moving to New York City on her 21st birthday. She's done a guest shot on "Seinfeld," a bit part in the movie "You've Got Mail," and a long string of theatrical productions. "I was good enough to be in a $60 million movie, and I'm used to making $200 a week in the theater — and that's in lead roles! I live in an apartment with a shower in my kitchen, but my little dump is quite cozy and attractive. I've achieved my dream, I've become a woman of the theater. I've created what I've wanted in my life — and now I have to get a business manager."

That's because Cox, 35, signed a six-year contract last week with the WB television network for a pilot and series deal. The show is "An American Family," where she'll play a lead role as earth mother in a multi-ethnic household. "I'm scared to commit to life in L.A.," Cox says, "but I took the series because I'm excited about the people and the concept."

Her 13-episode deal starts with a pilot to be filmed in June.

"They say it takes 20 years to make a great actress. I've worked continually for the past 16 years and I guess practice makes perfect. I hope to be paying my dues for the rest of my life."
— Deveron Timberlake

Buried Tracks Recall a Clang

This spring, more than monkey grass and new buildings are breaking ground near Virginia Commonwealth University.

Driving west on Main Street is now a bumpier ride than usual thanks to pockets of broken asphalt caused by winter snow and ice. But what makes this year's debris riveting is what lies below the surface: trolley tracks.

It's not every day that history comes back to bite you, or at least, your tires.

"I used to see it at the corner of Harrison in front of Piccola's," says Ray Bonis with VCU's special collections department. "It's kind of neat."

This year, the broken pavement is most noticeable at the intersection of Main and Cherry streets where a large missing chunk of concrete reveals copper-colored tracks only inches below. "My guess is it's the same [metal] used for railroad tracks," says Bonis.

According to Bonis, Richmond was the first U.S. city to have a successful trolley system, which began in 1888 and by 1890 included eight streetcar lines that covered more than 32 miles.

But by 1950, nearly all the trolleys had disappeared as city buses made public transportation easier. Still, many bus routes kept the same name and number as earlier streetcar routes until just a few years ago. Even today, the Laurel Street bus route is much the same as its trolley counterpart a century ago.

So far, the only call citing the exposed trolley tracks to the city's Department of Public Works has been from Style, says Roderick Thompson, a customer service representative who makes sure all calls are looked into. A road crew, he says, has been alerted. "I've keyed into the computer that there are potholes with trolley tracks showing through," says Roderick. And now, he adds, "There'll be an inspection."
— B.W.


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