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Not-So-Easy Access

When it comes to schools and ADA compliance, can the city afford to wait?

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The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination because of disability in the full and equal use of public facilities and accommodations. It describes, in language both vague and specific, how physical barriers must be avoided in new construction and eliminated, when readily achievable, from existing buildings. In other words, there's much room for interpretation.

Many of the city's schools are decades old and architecturally difficult and expensive to update. Beatty and others charge that the city has had more than enough time and opportunity to respond to ADA requirements, which routinely are difficult to enforce. Nonetheless, Beatty and others are pledging to hold the city accountable.

The fervor comes in the wake of the recent shelving of a hard-won plan for making city schools ADA compliant. After learning in January that only four of 61 schools are fully in step with the federal law 13 years after it went into effect, the Richmond School Board created a subcommittee of parents and educators to address how to make swift and necessary change. That group presented its recommendations and a three-year rollout to the board March 21.

The plan didn't go far. Days later, it was nixed by proposed budget cuts.

Because modifications needed to enable or enhance accessibility — ramps, elevators, curb cuts, parking places, wider restrooms — involve altering school facilities, the costs fall within the school administration's capital improvements budget.

Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder recently proposed cutting that budget from $7 million to $2 million. The slash nullifies money for ADA compliance, as yearly maintenance costs for the city's schools attest.

The deadline for Wilder to complete his budget is April 6. The School Board is expected to discuss the matter at its April 11 meeting.

An emotional meeting may ensue. Third-District School Board Member Carol A.O. Wolf says she is angered by the proposed cuts, calling them "tantamount to abusing taxpayers and children."

Wolf questions how $7 to $9 million can be found for projects such as moving the offices of nearly 400 school administrators and support staff from City Hall to a renovated Armstrong High School in July when funds can't be secured to reconcile a matter of federal law.

It's no wonder Wolf would balk. Making all city schools ADA compliant was part of her campaign platform for re-election in November. Even before, she had gained a reputation among constituents and city officials as aggressively outspoken about special-education programs and issues that she asserts undermine civil rights.

"The problem becomes one of ADA compliance being one of elective surgery, and it's not," Wolf says, touting an ADA initiative in Austin, Texas, that agencies citywide uniformly embraced. Equal access to public buildings "goes beyond whether kids have access" and includes family members and employees of the school system, she says.

School Board Chairman and 5th-District Member Steve B. Johnson suggests Wolf and Beatty take a wait-and-see approach with the school system's ADA compliance efforts. All of its buildings don't need to be ADA compliant, he says; rather, every student regardless of disability must have access to school programs.

Johnson also serves as school-board liaison to the mayor's office, and while he credits Wolf as "passionate" about equal physical access, he offers a caveat: "We can't spend a million dollars in a school that we're going to close." Indeed, the board is considering closing a handful of its outdated and high-maintenance schools and consolidating them as it did last year with Armstrong and Kennedy high schools.

Johnson says the mayor's office is committed to working with the School Board and parents to resolve conflicts but cautions that the School Board voted to approve the "concept" of the subcommittee's three-year ADA compliance plan, not necessarily the details on how to do it.

Beatty and Wolf say the details matter and matter now. Beatty would like for her 10-year-old son to be able to attend Fox, the neighborhood school, with his brother. If he did, she says, "I wouldn't have two PTAs, two class schedules and my sons could share the same friendships." Without the subcommittee's three-year plan, the likelihood is slim.

For now, ADA compliance by city schools continues to be a sweepingly interpreted byproduct of federal law. The time may come when city officials see an increase in its potency and themselves as potentially liable.

"This is such a civil-rights issue," Beatty says of her son's exclusion from Fox. "The only part of that school my son could get to by himself, if he tried really hard maneuvering, is the cafeteria." S



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