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Mayor Revives School Construction Plan

Huguenot High School may top the list for renovations.

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Mayor Dwight C. Jones will address the School Board at a meeting this evening to outline a plan to revamp Richmond's school buildings.

The so far undisclosed plan, which the city administration calls “Build a Better Richmond,” rises from the ashes of former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's City of the Future plan, which laid out school renovations.

Wilder's plan got mucked up politically as the mayor got bogged down in details about which of 11 schools the School Board would close before he'd free up money. The plan wasn't implemented.

Administration officials are remaining tightlipped about the details of the Jones plan, but an anonymous source close to city officials says Huguenot High School is at the top of the list expected to be put forward by Jones.

City spokeswoman Tammy Hawley would not confirm details of the plan or of the mayor's presentation, but says the meeting is “definitely related to school renovation and construction.”

Hawley bills the meeting as part of the ongoing cooperative relationship in place between Jones and Superintendent Yvonne Brandon. The two also have actively promoted a campaign called “The Choice” to lure area families back to Richmond schools, where attendance has dropped to fewer than 24,000 students.

The mayor “wants to provide the School Board with some firsthand information -- he wants to talk about the progress that's being made,” Hawley says, noting that the meeting will include specifics at least about “a workable timeframe for forward movement” in construction and renovation of schools.

Paul Goldman, a former Wilder confidante who takes credit for developing the City of the Future plan and who's been pushing for changes in federal tax law to allow public school districts to take advantage of federal historic tax credits to renovate school buildings, says any plan that leapfrogs elementary-school renovations should be reconsidered.

“Focusing on the elementary schools was in the best interest of Richmond,” Goldman says. “First of all you could do a lot more projects. Two, if you're really going to build up the school system long-term you've got to lure the young families back into the city.”

Goldman notes that high schools are unlikely to provide that sort of lure, and that among all schools construction projects, they're among the most expensive. At $80 million each, he says, “that's a couple of elementary schools right there.”

Hawley confirms that the city's capital improvement budget includes $150 million for phase one of the mayor's plan for schools construction.

Underlying any discussion on schools construction will be the Capital City Program, a school better known as CCP and operated by an out-of-state contractor with whom Richmond Public Schools has a contract to provide an alternative disciplinary school. The district's contract with that outside provider calls for a new building to be constructed to house the school, and the time in which that building was contracted to be built is about to expire, confirms Kirk Schroder, a lawyer who represents CCP.

Schroder says “there are penalty clauses that are coming into effect, but we haven't taken a position as to what we may or may not do about that at this time.”

State Sen. Henry Marsh, whose law firm also has been representing CCP lately, is scheduled to be at tonight's meeting representing the school. Schroder says he won't be at the meeting.

Hawley says that there's nothing in the mayor's proposal that alters the timeline for construction of CCP's new building. In January, shortly after taking office, Jones penned an op-ed piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in which he touted the CCP program.

Nothing's changed about the CCP program,” Hawley says, noting that the bigger issue remains new schools in a city where some facilities are edging up on their century-mark birthdays.

“Everyone knows about the aging infrastructure and the [capital improvement plan] has always included the funding for school construction and renovation,” she says. “We'd like to move forward where we have … workable timeframes.”

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