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Changing Lanes

The Richmond School Board balks at City Council’s push for accountability.

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Political maneuvering between the City Council and School Board over school funding may result in the council developing a three-year plan for the city's struggling schools — with or without the participation of School Board members.

There was a flare-up last week over who draws the map that guides the district's future. It stems from long-simmering tension between the School Board, charged with steering the school district, and City Council, which provides the money.

City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson wants the School Board to provide council with a three-year plan that establishes funding needs and academic goals. She first sought the plan in October, but held off after School Board members said it was better to wait until a permanent superintendent was in place.

Since Dana Bedden took the job in January, there's been a growing public outcry against the disrepair of some school buildings. That's pressured City Council to defend itself against accusations of improperly funding the school district.

At a City Council budget hearing last week, Alliance for Progressive Values member Kirsten Gray said maintenance issues at Thompson Middle and Carver Elementary schools have been in the news for more than a year.

"The black ooze is still dripping in Thompson," she told the council. "Students at Carver are still learning next to dead rodents."

Council members simply want a better sense of where the money is going, Councilman Parker Agelasto says. Reviews for the School Board by City Auditor Umesh Dalal have revealed questionable spending and lax oversight.

Council members "want to see some plan that they can then measure and say, 'You have been good or bad stewards of the money,'" Agelasto says.

In what Robertson called "a last effort of patience," the council's Education and Human Services Committee agreed to create a new joint committee last Wednesday to develop the three-year plan. It would include the mayor's office, City Council members and School Board representatives. The measure is headed to City Council.

"It's time for us to move forward with this," Robertson said during the meeting that at times grew tense.

"We just hope everyone can stay in their lanes," School Board member Tichi Pinkney-Eppes said, "and not step on each other's toes and play this political rhetoric on the backs of our children."

That sentiment noticeably irritated the council members on the committee. Robertson glared. City Council member Michelle Mosby bristled, comparing the School Board to her 23-year-old daughter resisting advice. "This is the only board that comes before us that says we are unfair for being concerned about the children, too," she said.

School Board members Jeff Bourne, Shonda Harris-Muhammed and Pinkney-Eppes told the committee that while they want to work collaboratively, Robertson's approach risks muddying Bedden's planning process.

Afterward, Bourne accused the council of punishing a nearly all-new School Board for "the sins of our fathers." Seven of the nine members were newly elected in 2012.

"I understand that there's a history," Vice Chairman Kristen Larson said. "That's what most of us ran our campaigns on — changing the course of Richmond Public Schools. We've done a lot in the last 15 months to show the direction we're moving in."

Larson said she isn't certain how the board will respond if asked to send representatives to the proposed committee.

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