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Just Saying No

As Wilder and the School Board duke it out, Richmond parents side with the kids.

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As rhetoric between the School Board and the mayor heats up — now with dramatic threats that children may not receive school lunches if money from the city isn't freed up — city parents are fighting back with a new organization and Web site, TellWilderNO.org.

"We fundamentally understand what he's saying," says the group's spokeswoman, Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, who is also president of the Richmond Council of PTAs. "There should be accountability, and we, too, would like to know what happened to the money. However, we would disagree that this litigious process is going to get us to the answer any sooner."

The group, which claims no political affiliation, encourages parents to contact Wilder, School Board members and City Council representatives to advocate for an end to hostilities in the name of what's right for students.

Pinkney-Eppes says the organization's name — with its shot across Wilder's bow — hardly writes a free pass for the other fists in this fight — the School Board.

"We have to have a school system that's more effective and efficient," she says. "Why is the school system not ADA-compliant when they've been getting money for that since 1992?"

Wilder previously removed money earmarked by the School Board to begin renovations at schools to bring them into compliance with the standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The action provoked a lawsuit by parents against the city and schools. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled in Wilder's favor.

These are the sorts of lawsuits that parents say they're fed up with.

On Monday, Wilder's Visions newsletter blasted the School Board for its continued efforts to buck his authority, casting blame for the current impasse on them.

"When the School Board's vice chairman recently commented that money might not be available to feed our schoolchildren, I was prompted to ask: what higher priority do you have than the health, safety and welfare of the children entrusted to your care?" Wilder says in the newsletter. "One would think that bus routes could be altered, or lawn maintenance curtailed, rather than allow our children to go hungry. On my watch, they won't go hungry and using them as pawns is reprehensible."

The letter has School Board Chairman George P. Braxton II fuming.

"If we don't pay vendors and vendors decide not to deliver the products we use to feed the children, [no food services] could become a real concern," Braxton says, calling Wilder's suggestions that lawn maintenance or other services could be scaled back disingenuous. "It's not very often that you get advice from the person who's causing the problem. You look at that — mowing the lawn: Do we not pay the grounds service people? These are employees of the school system."

But with both schools and the city preparing or pursuing lawsuits against the mayor, Wilder still has his allies — even on the School Board.

As for the recent hunger scare, School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf calls it a "maudlin manipulation on the part of the School Board claiming our children would go hungry. It's an insult to the intelligence of our parents and citizens to tell them that their children would go hungry."

But Wilder's comments also come off as somewhat disingenuous, she says: "It appears that neither the mayor nor the School Board leadership sees the duty of being a proper role model. Both are given to statements of gross misrepresentations."

Meanwhile, many on the School Board say the current mess — including the lawsuit — could have been avoided had Wilder simply given them chance to meet and vote.

"I believe the majority of the board was prepared in the first meeting — when this whole thing came up — to go with [the audit] until the money was withheld," Braxton says. "A cynic could say that … you never gave them a chance to say no or yes. You just took the money," explaining that Wilder started withdrawing the funds before the School Board had a chance to meet.

Wilder began withholding funds to the schools about a week before the School Board's scheduled March 19 meeting. Braxton says simple polling shows the board had a majority in favor of allowing the mayor to audit the school system.

All of which speaks to why parents are now fuming, says Chris Jankowski, managing principal of local political consulting firm Rhumb Line, which is providing TellWilderNO.org with media consulting services. Jankowski also is parent of two children who attend Richmond public schools.

"I'm the profile of the kind of person who would love what Mayor Wilder is trying to do," says Jankowski, who calls himself a conservative who supported Wilder's election as mayor. "I sense among my friends and neighbors that his support is eroding quickly. We're united in our opposition to withholding funds — I haven't met a parent yet who supports the mayor's actions." S



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