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Schools Out

The ongoing feud between Mayor Wilder and Richmond Schools is beginning to sow a nasty budget shortfall.

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Budget shenanigans, an eviction notice and an unfunded legal settlement over handicap access have Richmond Public Schools in upheaval.

Mayor Doug Wilder's decree evicting the schools' administration from City Hall has the School Board scrambling for moving costs amid a budget crunched by legal fees and unpaid building contractors. Wilder had set a deadline for the move for July 1, but as of Monday morning, School Board offices remained at City Hall.

Meanwhile, a Richmond School Board member is questioning the legality of the School Board administration's decision to spend more than half a million dollars renovating space at Richmond Technical Center to house some central office operations.

The decision was made without a formal vote by the School Board, says School Board member Carol Wolf. The space being renovated will house information technology department offices.

"We never voted to pay this kind of money to move and to create space in another building for this IT function. Absolutely not," Wolf says. "And Virginia law requires that when you're spending more than $200,000, you need to have [School Board] approval on these kinds of contracts. That was not given."

Richmond Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black has declined to provide the School Board administration with authorization or funds to pay the project's construction contractor. Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman confirmed that Black kicked back invoices from school officials, citing a lack of documentation and failure to justify expenses.

School officials estimate the cost of moving their offices from City Hall to 3600 W. Broad St., a location determined in a letter to school officials from Wilder last week, at $400,000. School Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman told board members June 26 that an additional $537,000 had already been spent on the Tech Center renovations.

Richmond Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black has so far declined to provide the School Board administration with authorization or funds to pay the project's construction contractor. Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman confirmed that Black kicked back invoices from school officials, citing a lack of documentation and failure to justify expenses.

"We had no idea they were contemplating relocating this rather large operation," Black says, calling the cost of that move "enough in and of itself to support the entire move of the School Board."

The School Board's chairman and vice chairwoman both confirm that no vote was ever taken to authorize the project, but they say that a vote was not needed.

"All of the procedures surrounding that decision have been legal and appropriate, and they fully comply with the law and School Board policy," said Board Vice Chairwoman Lisa Dawson.

Both she and Board Chairman George Braxton say the decision to move IT facilities to the Tech Center was one borne of necessity to protect vital School Board functions in the face of Mayor Wilder's eviction threats.

School Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman told board members June 26 that an additional $537,000 had already been spent for the Tech Center renovations.

Wolf says Jewell-Sherman told board members that the Tech Center expenses currently are being paid out of the School Board's operating budget rather than out of capital improvement funds. The contractor doing the project has already been paid out of available funds, Dawson says.

"Without [IT], we could not function," Dawson says, adding that Wolf's concern about a lack of an official vote to authorize the Tech Center expense will be rectified in due time. "The vote will be taken when we learn whether the mayor intends to pay for those [moving] expenses."

But Black says that the move was more than a potential waste of money and resources, and that it may have undermined plans to consolidate certain school and city functions, per the recommendations of City Auditor Umesh Dalal.

"That's preempted by this current action," Black says.

In the meantime, Dawson says, the renovations were done assuming Wilder would make good on an earlier promise to pay for moving expenses. School officials were loading computers into moving vans parked in front of City Hall late last week.

"We are relying primarily on a letter from the mayor to the superintendent where he promised to pay for moving expenses," Dawson says. "If it turns out he decides not to pay for moving expenses, we will have to find another way to pay."

That letter, sent May 3, says that "the city stands ready to cover all reasonable expenses that we will incur in assisting in RPS's move."

Wolf says her colleagues are forgetting Wilder's skills as a linguistic gymnast. She suggests his reference to the "expenses that we will incur" means those incurred by City Hall, and not by the School Board.

Wilder's spokesman, Norman, didn't respond to requests for comment on the letter.

The renovation of the Tech Center has also caught the attention of lawyers in the recent settlement case involving parents of disabled students. As the Tech Center is being renovated, funding required to bring schools in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is nearly nonexistent in the School Board's 2007-2008 budget.

Wolf has called any plans that divert funds away from ADA improvements unethical and improper. City Hall administration appears to agree with her, at least in deeming the Tech Center expense improper.

Like Wolf, lawyers for plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Richmond School Board wonder how the school system justifies its funding of projects such as the Tech Center renovation. They're also displeased with a revised budget passed by the city's School Board last week.

That budget is also subject to interpretation. Depending on whom you talk to, the budget contains either $311,000 or $0 for improvements to schools facilities to bring them in line with federal ADA requirements. The revised budget was adopted to account for a shortfall in funding between the School Board's initial budget request and what was eventually approved by City Council.

A settlement agreement between the plaintiffs — parents of various Richmond students with disabilities — and the School Board holds the school system responsible for making improvements within a five-year time frame. The settlement requires school officials to make "best efforts" to meet the settlement requirements.

But the parents' lawyers don't believe that the legal standard for "best efforts" is being satisfied — as evidenced by line items in the school budget showing $0 for ADA compliance.

"We are studying the budget and are in discussions with the School Board counsel over the situation," says David Hopper, a local attorney who represented parents in the suit. "We have asked them for some clarity and are awaiting a response."

Hopper says that requests for further information from School Board lawyers have not yet been answered.

In March, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson met with parties to the suit to discuss the settlement agreement. At that meeting, according to parties present, Hudson indicated that, if necessary, he would take steps to ensure the agreement is enforced.

Though no dollar figure is stipulated in the agreement, which is tied to specific problems identified at each school facility, the overall estimated cost of those improvements has been estimated between $18 million and $25 million.

A ruling earlier this year absolved the city from having to pay for the School Board's settlement agreement. But a spokesman for Wilder says school officials should comply with the settlement agreement.

"It was a rendering by the courts that is now to be honored," Norman says. S

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