- Scott Elmquist
- Ceilings at Thompson Middle School show ominous warning signs of water damage. A sodden tile recently fell and struck a student at Fairfield Court Elementary School, which is first in line for a new roof.
As momentum gathers behind a push for more funding for Richmond’s public schools -- many are getting an abrupt lesson in local politics this week as they learn who does, and doesn’t, have the ability to make things right.
As School Board members, Superintendent Dana Bedden and other school officials gathered in Clark Springs’ gym last Wednesday to explain how all of Fairfield Court Elementary students will be bused there during emergency roof repairs, a simple truth emerged: those who can answer questions about exactly when Fairfield will re-open weren’t in the room.
Fairfield Court Community LaLeta Fritz, who quizzed Bedden and Coleman throughout the meeting about why the school wasn’t closed sooner after a ceiling tile fell on a student in March.
“We get it,” School Board Chairman Don Coleman said. “We get that this is not acceptable.”
What the public doesn’t get, Coleman told the audience, is that among the dozen or so officials present, none of them has the power to control the school district’s budget. The budget is submitted by the mayor, and amended and approved by City Council.
The problems are large enough that School Board Vice Chairman Kristen Larson says she would like to begin a push for Richmond’s school board to become the first in Virginia to control its own finances. But right now, “I can’t say I’m going to send people in to fix it tomorrow,”Larson says. “We have this bag of pennies. It’s a reality that’s uncomfortable.”
City Council President Charles Samuels says he shares the concern. “It puts them in a unique and difficult position,” he says, adding that he is working with Gray to match priorities.
“You want everything to be perfect in every way, and it’s an impossibility in the world we live in to make that happen,” he says, “but you want to make sure that when there’s an opportunity to boost the (capital improvement) funds, you take it.”
The City Council is considering a budget submitted by Jones that calls for $5 million in capital maintenance funds in 2015. While that’s close to the amount the School Board suggested, 2nd District Representative Kim Gray has argued the board’s own request wasn’t nearly enough to cover extensive needs that include Fairfield’s roof, a similar leak at Thompson Middle School and $100 million in other needs throughout the district.
Meanwhile, Jones continues to seek funds for new school construction, including the already underway Huguenot High School and a new school in Highland Park.
Larson is now seeking volunteers for a buildings task force of meant to highlight the drastic maintenance needs of the district’s schools, and the public is beginning to demand change as well. Richmond resident Bert Berlin launched a petition asking City Council for more funding, after Style last week published a story and photos detailing the derelict conditions of some school buildings.
“I have been for years complaining about the level of funding of Richmond Public Schools,” Berlin says. “Instead of the school’s share of the budget going up, it’s going down. Maybe I can shame them.”
While Samuels spoke of striking a balance between building new schools and maintaining old buildings, 5th District City Council Representative Parker Agelasto says he continues to oppose the construction of new schools while so many older schools are in disrepair, saying, “We can’t pick winners and losers.”
The City Council is expected to vote on the budget by the end of May. Until then, Coleman says it’s up to the public to advocate for change.
“At some point we adults need to realize we’re not all going to get our way,” he says, “but can we make decisions that are best for our children?”