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More feuding and little progress: Is this Wilder's legacy?

Scaled-backed school plans and a shaky City of the Future.

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Mayor Doug Wilder has about three months before voters get wind of the fact that the City of the Future talk was a lot of hot air.

So predicts Wilder's former close adviser, Paul Goldman.

"I think it happens at the end of this budget process," Goldman says of a likely awakening of the Richmond electorate. "I think it then becomes a political issue. It already cost us a year — that's $20 million in cost. We lost a year to bickering."

He called Wilder's recent re-unveiling of the revised City of the Future plan a "Groundhog Day" repeat, referencing the Bill Murray film wherein Murray must relive the same day over and over again.

Goldman's not alone in thinking this most recent installment in the ever-changing City of the Future — now it's a matter of two new high schools, and not 15 renovated elementary and middle schools — reeks of political stalling and a departure from the lofty goals of the original plan unveiled in January 2006.

Instead, it's just more of the same: political bickering between Wilder and the Richmond School Board. Political bickering between Wilder and City Council. Political bickering between Wilder and the business community.

To date, the bickering may be Wilder's most identifiable accomplishment since taking office in 2005, critics say.

"We're almost three-quarters of the way through this administration, and where's the action on education?" posits Thomas Shields, professor of leadership studies and director of the Center for Leadership in Education at the University of Richmond. "Again, we're stuck in this bind here, and we're wondering what's going to break the impasse. What's the win on this? What's the exit strategy?"

It appears there is none. Wilder's push for two new specialty high schools for $169 million must be approved by City Council and the School Board. Even if the schools are presented as "charter schools" that operate outside the control of the school administration, Virginia law first requires the School Board's approval.

And then there's funding. City Council members appear unlikely to go along with Wilder's plan to build two new specialty high schools for $169 million without any emphasis on elementary and middle schools, which made up the lion's share of the $180 million capital-improvement plan that Council approved last year.

"The critical need is in that existing infrastructure," Council President William J. Pantele says. "Some schools should be closed and consolidated, others should be renovated and rebuilt, but the focus of the capital-spending program has to be on those core values of Richmond Public Schools, and not on creating an alternative, bifurcated school system."

Wilder's hammering of the School Board — last week he demanded another financial audit — has so far disabled the school administration's ability to put forth a plan to accommodate Wilder's City of the Future, says School Board Chairman George P. Braxton II. He says the city administration's demands — namely to close and consolidate schools this year — are irresponsible.

"We need to right-size the system," Braxton says. "But just like everything else, it has to be done in a businesslike, commonsense kind of way."

For example, Braxton says it may be too much to tell parents that the school system is eliminating out-of-zone transportation — that is, busing children to schools out of their districts at the request of parents, an "inefficiency" that costs roughly $700,000 a year — and then turn around and tell them the out-of-zone schools are closing. That requires public hearings and considerable study, Braxton says.

"We live in an overpoliticized, dysfunctional government situation," Braxton says. "While we've made every effort to try and move forward and get things done, the distractions and the dysfunctional communication choices of the city have made it next to impossible [for the School Board] to be productive."

It's the modus operandi of the Wilder administration: bare-knuckle brawls. But to what end? Even Goldman, Wilder's longtime political sidekick, isn't sure anymore.

"I think the city is being overwhelmed by politics," Goldman says. "It's clear that there's no urgency to fix up the schools. Not at the School Board, not on Council and not with the mayor."

The clock is ticking, but Council can't be forced into making decisions as important as schools on the fly, says Councilman Chris Hilbert, who's concerned that the mayor's plans for two new specialty schools with 1,000 students apiece is a bit much, especially when it comes to safety concerns.

"Given what's happened at John Marshall and George Wythe [where student fights and teacher beat-downs made headlines in the last two weeks], I'm concerned about that," Hilbert says. "Schools with more than 500 students can be problematic."

Hilbert would prefer that the emphasis be placed on middle schools. City parents with the means to relocate to the suburbs often do so when their children reach middle-school age, Hilbert says. "I have parents in my district who are staying through elementary school," he says. "It's just a more difficult sell at that middle-school level. People with the means and options to go elsewhere do at that point."

Councilwoman Kathy Graziano, who doesn't traditionally line up behind Wilder, gives the mayor's plans a bit more staying power — though she, too, sees the need for some momentum during the upcoming budget cycle.

"I think something's going to have to come out of it this year in order to make it credible," Graziano says. But she takes an optimist's view of what's occurred so far.

"I would say that the 2007 budget had very little money in it for City of the Future," she says — 2008 "is where [the money is]. I would say this is the year that we need to start to deliver on City of the Future."

Of course, that's if the bickering has subsided. And that's a long shot.

"Doug has never really created a legacy for himself. He's always been the type of guy who would fight with others," Shields says. "I think people are starting to wonder now. What will be his legacy?" S

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