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The Gang of 26

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Richmond just got a rude wake-up call.

"Whap!"

That was the sound of parents and taxpayers getting bitch-slapped into consciousness by the city's most prominent business leaders.

You know the leaders I'm referring to: folks from the higher reaches of Style's Power List who told us more than two years ago that directly electing Richmond's mayor would help bring about real leadership and change in River City (and also treat warts, regrow hair on bald spots and ward off hangovers).

It seems that while directly electing the mayor was a slam dunk for democracy (so the hype went), Richmond's "business community" has now concluded that city voters are not, ah, sophisticated enough to choose who gets to represent them on the Richmond School Board.

Instead of taking this idea to the ballot box and allowing Richmond residents the opportunity to decide whether or not to surrender their voting rights, a coalition of the area's Captains of Industry say they intend to take a shortcut, around parents and ordinary taxpayers alike, to petition the General Assembly to install their plan. And with no public input. Under the proposal, this Gang of 26 would enjoy the power to choose, appoint and otherwise install the School Board representatives themselves (with a little help from their friends at City Hall).

Writer and blogger John Sarvay has compared this vision of how to run Richmond to that of a Scandinavian oligarchy. Most of us would view it as a blatant and rather heavy-handed power grab.

Frustrated by his recent battles with school officials over mismanagement and waste, the mayor (who didn't say a whole lot about Scandinavian oligarchies when he ran for office a few years ago) likes the business leaders' plan. It seems that there are limits to freedom. It now ends at the schoolhouse door. Rest in peace, Oliver Hill.

As Evette L. Wilson, School Board rep for the 9th District, points out in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond made a decision about how it wished to choose its School Board in 1994. "I'm very passionate about elected school boards. ... I stood in front of many grocery stores with my kids to get signatures on petitions," Wilson said. "In my opinion if we go back to the appointed School Board, then you cannot guarantee the citizens the right to hold the School Board members accountable for any decisions they make."

Strong words, Ms. Wilson. But what's truly sad is that those put in charge of the schools through the democratic process -- and that includes you — have left Richmond's system in such dire and unmanageable straits that this kind of Draconian measure would even be seriously considered, much less officially proposed.

No, I am not a fan of the current Richmond School Board — only Keith West and Carol Wolf seem willing to make the tough decisions necessary to cut through the waste and malaise that grip the system. But that doesn't mean that I'm ready to sign on to a plan that is nothing but public education as prescribed by Ukrop's Super Markets, Dominion Resources and Philip Morris tobacco. Anyone who thinks an appointed board of Richmond-area corporate figureheads would bring Richmond closer to sound fiscal management, a corruptionless, waste-free philosophy and anything close to participatory democracy simply hasn't been paying attention to recent events.

As reported by Style Weekly, and blogs such as Save Richmond, the mayor and many of these same members of the "business community" have been less than stellar when it comes to soliciting and incorporating civic participation for the area committees, commissions and taxpayer-funded partnerships they've convened over the past few years. We've seen:

  • "Public" meetings that were never advertised or were largely shielded from taxpayers (see: education committee, performing arts committee)

  • A disdain for expertise and competence, and a colossal failure to live up to promises involving taxpayer funds (see: Virginia Performing Arts Foundation and CenterStage)

  • Projects with huge expenditures, largely unaccountable to the public, that failed to meet rosy projections and are still costing the city millions (see: Broad Street CDA, 6th Street Marketplace, expanded Convention Center)

  • Heavy-handed, two-faced relations with the community at large (Virginia Commonwealth University and Oregon Hill)

    And so on. Gosh, that sounds an awful lot like our "unaccountable" School Board, doesn't it?

    And, no offense, but isn't this the same group of (mostly white) power players who sit on all the other appointed boards around here? Three cheers for their community service, but how many of them have children in the city school system? How many of them even live in Richmond, which is predominantly African-American? If they are so concerned about the city schools, why did they not send out strong messages like this during the last campaign season?

    That's not to say that the Gang of 26 isn't justified in its concerns. And these prominent citizens have every right to speak out (as one voice or many) on important civic matters. It doesn't get much more important than the education of our children. So if the shock of this proposal from our Titans of Commerce causes the rest of us to seriously look at what is happening (or not happening, as the case may be) with our elected School Board, good on them!

    But if it's all the same to the "business community," I'd like to reserve the right to vote out my local School Board representative myself. It's a little something called democracy, and we need more of it around here, not less. S



    Don Harrison is a freelance writer and a father. He is the co-founder of the blog SaveRichmond.com.

    Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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