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How did we wind up 50 years later sending vulnerable youngsters back to a school the public had long wanted closed?

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Is the magnolia mentality back and running Richmond? This plantation mindset seems the only explanation for a recent decision that's baffling even by Richmond government standards. It's become a cause célèbre on the Internet, generating national attention. The controversy revolves around the surprise reopening of the former A.V. Norrell Elementary School building in the East End. It was built a half-century ago adjacent to an active landfill. Seriously.

This school's hazardous location has proven controversial from the start. Norrell was closed for a short time in the 1970s because of health fears. The building suffered serious damage during Hurricane Ernesto in 2006, and supposedly was closed for good.

Until this year. At some point in the run-up to the new school year, city and school officials realized the expected classroom space for the East End preschool at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School would be unavailable. After what school officials billed as an exhaustive review of the options, they decided to send these Head Starters to the admittedly aged, obsolete and environmentally challenged (as is true of all such structures) Norrell building. Clearly the best option, school officials said. Unsurprisingly, the decision revived the dormant controversy about the school's safety, especially given a decision-making process seen as limiting participation by affected parents and community groups.

The mayor, school superintendent and certain members of the Richmond School Board have questioned the motives, not to mention the facts, of their critics. They bristle at suggestions of being racially insensitive to children's interests.

There are always two sides to any such chess board. But this debate is super-sensitive because of the pawns in the game: young preschoolers already facing difficult enough challenges.

The dispute has been dominated by two questions: Is it safe or still a hazard? And who's telling the truth? Here's the better question: How did city and school officials get themselves into this situation?

Roughly 50 years ago, city and school officials forced black children to attend a so-called separate-but-equal school built on a landfill. No other school facility seems to have been built on what the Environmental Protection Agency would consider an active landfill. In that regard, Norrell Elementary is unique. At the time, the Richmond Crusade for Voters and various black political leaders correctly declared this wouldn't be permitted anywhere else in the city. But back then, the mayor and members of the School Board were appointed by City Council. Black voter participation was legally restricted. The parents of the children had no meaningful input into the decision.

Zoom to 2006, when the mayor, City Council and the School Board praised and supported my City of the Future plan aimed at renovating out-of-date public school buildings, on average the oldest and most obsolete in the state. Norrell was thus bedeviled by health and other issues attendant such an old building. Getting our youngsters out of these buildings — not putting them back into those already closed — supposedly was the new city policy.

Surely city and school leaders had to anticipate a certain degree of dismay, indeed shock, at their decision to reopen Norrell, even temporarily. This isn't the 1950s. The mayor, a majority of School Board and the superintendent, along with overwhelming majority of school personnel in the public system, are black.

What former governor and mayor L. Douglas Wilder called the "magnolia mentality" is supposed to be gone for good. So given the sea change in political authority during the last four years, how did we wind up 50 years later sending vulnerable youngsters back to a school the public long wanted closed?

By the very standards set by today's city and school officials, Norrell Elementary shouldn't be in use as public school facility. The legal, environmental and learning issues associated with such an old building are a matter of record. This is why the top Republicans and Democrats in Virginia backed my innovative federal legislation, which would save Richmond upwards of 40 percent, and probably more, on school rehabilitation costs.

Even if we give the city the benefit of the doubt and assume that the landfill poses no safety threat, city and school officials previously made it clear they don't want young children in such buildings unless there's no other reasonable option.

A comparable issue faced the Patrick Henry School of Sciences and Arts, the city's first charter school, a few years ago. Unexpected factors made it necessary to find a temporary location. A few us of helped find it a home in part of a church building formerly used as a school. This outside-the-box option was met with skepticism from city and school officials. But charter school officials, by necessity, must be innovative. It worked.

By comparison, the Norrell situation was viewed through the traditional bureaucratic prism and process. Ultimately, administrators and officials excluded parents from the process and made a decision that puts schoolchildren a risk.

Can it be fixed? Of course. If city and school leaders are serious, then the legal and other issues can be resolved in the best interests of the children. But let's be honest: This couldn't have happened in other parts of the city. We shouldn't be here in the first place. S

Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist and was senior policy adviser to former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

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