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Mayoral Rule

The mayor's education plan is a bolt of leadership, but raises the same old question: Who's in charge of the Richmond schools?

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When Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones met with the School Board last week to roll out his plan for $150 million in construction projects, it was another whiff of the fresh breeze that's cleared the air at City Hall since January.

Former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's protracted attempts to wrest control from the School Board have long since dissipated, but amid all the newfound cooperation, the same nagging question remains: Who's calling the shots?

When Jones made his pitch Oct. 20, he was reviving in spirit Wilder's failed City of the Future plan. Jones' message was conciliatory, but it also laid quiet claim to the construction process — who actually builds the schools — which was once sharply contended.

“They were willing to man the rails to fight to keep Wilder from [assuming authority],” former School Board member Keith West says. “But what's different now?” He applauds the new level of cooperation, but says the School Board may be unwittingly accepting the back seat while Jones leads in transforming the city's school facilities.

West says Virginia law vests that authority in school boards: “If you read it literally, the school system builds the schools.”

Jones' presentation stressed working “toward the alignment of your priorities with those of the administration,” and asked the board to approve his revisions to its capital improvement plan by November.

What Jones subtly assumed was authority to oversee the construction projects.

“With input from RPS staff we have completed contracts with four design firms with combined responsibility for up to seven schools,” Jones told the board, apparently revealing that his administration had worked out the details with Superintendent Yvonne Brandon and was also pushing ahead with contract awards for those projects.

It's a finer point within the larger process, but this authority was addressed in 2007 by a U.S. 4th District Court of Appeals ruling. In that case, in which Wilder and the city sought to avoid paying for Americans with Disabilities Act-required school renovations, the court said that schools rule:

“The City of Richmond has no power to make physical changes to school buildings or control the day-to-day operation of local school buildings and their services and programs. … The exclusive right to determine how appropriated funds shall be spent is in the discretion of the school board.”

That ruling repeats state law, West says.

“If the city can build the schools that the school system wants, then I don't see any problem with it,” he says. “But it should be clear that the school system has the ultimate responsibility.”

John Gerner, a former Wilder adviser on schools, applauds Jones' renewed commitment to school construction. “It's appropriate for the mayor to suggest what he would like to have built in the future,” Gerner says, but “I think the key is that it's advice.”

Despite the seemingly obscure point of law at the heart of Jones' minipower grab, there may be a broader context to what the incident highlights.

“It's a complicated arrangement,” says John Moeser, a senior fellow at University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. He sees the inadequacy of the state's elected school board law, which provides no taxing authority — and thus only limited autonomy.

Nonetheless, Moeser's pleased to see the board and the mayor getting along. “As long as you've got people who are working well together, these kinds of institutional complications can be surmounted,” he says, but “where it can get complicated is when the schools make any kind of decision, the fact that they don't control the purse strings … leaves the public confused about who to hold accountable.”

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