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This question must be answered quickly, so city officials can finalize a plan to replace or overhaul those 15 schools as part of the ambitious "City of the Future" plan Mayor L. Douglas Wilder unveiled to much fanfare Jan. 9.

"If you miss any deadlines, it could cost you millions," warns Paul Goldman, who developed the City of the Future's blueprint as the mayor's senior policy adviser. (He no longer holds the job.) City Council is supposed to approve the first capital plans in July.

But simply picking those schools has become a prolonged, mysterious process. In January, the mayor invited all comers to probe and prod his plan in a healthy public debate. But to date, his office has produced nothing documenting exactly which schools might be rebuilt.

The specifics regarding any of the other aspects of his plan also haven't materialized. Not for the proposed citywide math and science high school nor the high school for the arts; nor the plans to "modernize" the Landmark Theater, buy and modernize a new site for the Richmond School Board administration and retrofit the city's library branches.

The biggest missing piece, the 15 schools, seems most problematic. In late February, Wilder said he had his own idea of which schools were in the most dire straits. But he refused to provide names, because he said "it would appear to give priority, when it's not my intention to do this."

Wilder must be working from some concrete list, Goldman points out, because he's submitted two ordinances authorizing the sale of about $180 million in bonds. "Obviously they have to have a list, to have arrived at [that figure]," he says.

Goldman developed a list of schools, based on the school system's Facility Master Plan from 2002, but he says he no longer has that document. The city refuses to release it.

And finally, the School Board is beginning work on its own list, which by state law, Ballard says, would trump the others.

Why is this so difficult?

Goldman developed the "City of the Future" plan in late 2005 at the mayor's behest. He came up with the idea of using existing revenues, including new money coming in from expired tax abatements, to borrow $300 million to fund a massive overhaul of city schools and other infrastructure.

At the City Council meeting in early January, Wilder called the plan "the boldest and most comprehensive educational and neighborhood revitalization program ever attempted" in Virginia. After his speech, the mayor, Chief Administrative Officer William Harrell and new Chief Financial Officer Harry Black held a press conference to address questions about the specifics of the plan.

When asked which 15 schools would be selected as the ones that most needed improvements or rebuilding, the officials said details would come later. When asked how the money would be spent, Black said, "we really can't give a definite answer to the procedure."

Now, school board officials are getting antsy. They're about to begin work on the list of the 15 schools, but Ballard says he'd like to know what Wilder's own education advisory committee is doing, so they're on the same page.

But the mayor's committee is closed to the public, including Ballard and Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman. "I'll be real honest with you," Ballard says. "I don't know what they're doing."

Committee Chairman Bob Holsworth, who is director of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the committee is examining school finances, including the city's higher-than-average per-pupil costs.

"If you're asking the public to make a huge investment … it's imperative to convince the public that the dollars are being used most wisely and are being used to promote the education of kids," Holsworth says. The committee is closed to the public, he says, because members are just doing their homework and aren't ready for discussion.

"There hasn't been any list [of schools] identified by the committee," says committee member William C. Bosher Jr., former dean of VCU's School of Education. It's up to the School Board to "determine what they think their needs are" with regard to replacing and renovating schools, Bosher adds. Then the mayor, with the help of the committee, will consider their plan.

Ballard says he's asked "for a month" for an invitation to a committee meeting. The last time Ballard spoke with Holsworth, he says, he was told that he and the superintendent would be invited to the March meeting.

"What's today?" Ballard inquired, speaking to a reporter March 30. Holsworth says they'll be invited later.

Rebuffed, the School Board is now developing its own list, including the cost of bringing schools in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For his part, Wilder criticizes the School Board for not acting faster: "Oh, we need to sit down and talk about this for three more years," he says sarcastically. In February, Wilder even said he might give up entirely on the plan, given the ingratitude of the School Board. "Who knows? Why not?" he said.

He pointed contemptuously to the Feb. 22 Freedom of Information Act request filed by Ballard, which asked Wilder for "any and all public records … related to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's 'City of the Future Plan.'"

"That's the attitude," Wilder said. "It's confrontational."

Ballard says he was simply trying to get some hard evidence of the plan, so the board could do the appropriate due diligence. "Nobody could produce any document on how the funding was going to be allocated or anything else," he says.

So Ballard filed the FOIA request, which he says wasn't meant to be confrontational: "To me," he says, "it's just part of doing business today."

The city's response to the FOIA request was terse: City Attorney Norman B. Sales simply sent Ballard copies of two City Council ordinances related to the mayor's proposed budget. The city attorney's office "does not possess any other records" the FOIA request asked for, Sales wrote.

"The interesting thing is the lawyer said, 'This is all that's in my office,'" Ballard notes. "You can draw your own conclusions from that."

Members of the School Board's finance committee asked Goldman to talk to them March 22 about the City of the Future plan.

He gave them a pep talk about the need to work together to get the school-building started. Maybe everyone won't agree, he said, "but you can agree on enough to get the thing going."

The board still needed a push. Ballard asked Goldman if board members could have a look at his original schools list. "If you could make that list available to us it would be a great help," he said.

Goldman says he doesn't have the list anymore, because when he resigned from the mayor's office he had to leave his documents and computer files behind. But his own list of the schools was simply drawn from the 2002 Facility Master Plan, he says.

That plan called for 13 city schools to be created on existing sites or entirely rebuilt: Albert V. Norrell, Woodville, E. S. H. Greene, Swansboro, Fairfield Court, George Mason, Oak Grove, Summer Hill and Fulton-area elementary schools; South Richmond and Binford middle schools; and Huguenot and New East high schools. It would seem to make sense that at least some of these would be among the 15 projects selected for the plan.

Goldman no longer has any formal involvement in the "City of the Future" plan and was recently, by Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman, warned away from interfering. He said Goldman's involvement could be "counterproductive and nonbeneficial."

Goldman scoffs at Norman's words — "That helps the kids?" — and continues to meet with council and school officials.

"Certainly it's moving a lot slower than I would have liked," Goldman says, but he says he's optimistic the City of the Future will come to pass. S

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