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Fixing the Fix



Since the inception of the Richmond Public Schools Education Foundation six years ago, the nonprofit organization has done next to nothing.

The Richmond School Board established the foundation to open a spigot for private money to enter public schools and got its first corporate pledge of $100,000 from Verizon in 2002.

Since then, the foundation has lost nearly all its steam. Until 2005, it quietly provided an outlet for small-time private donors and a few much-smaller corporate donations. Then it faded.

By next month, the Richmond School Board hopes to reignite the foundation, acknowledging that the dormant organization is tailor-made to give Richmond business leaders the ability to work with the School Board and even help steer its policy decisions.

The push comes just weeks after a group of 26 local business leaders called for a radical switch from a popularly elected school board to one that's appointed by Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and City Council. They proposed the change as the best way to begin addressing what some business leaders consider a grossly mismanaged school system.

The foundation could partially answer that complaint, School Board Vice-Chairwoman Lisa Dawson says. Dawson, School Board Chairman George Braxton and Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman are the three remaining foundation board members. Its six other members were dismissed by the School Board last year.

"We are way behind the eight-ball on this," Dawson says.

Inactivity isn't the foundation's only hurdle. The city school system's onboard gadfly, Carol A.O. Wolf, is calling for caution -- and an audit — to answer lingering questions about the foundation's bookkeeping.

Wolf began questioning the board's past activities in July, shortly after Assistant Superintendent Tom Sheeran, in an e-mail to School Board members, called the organization's reactivation an "urgent need." Wolf says the foundation has yet to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for its IRS papers and financial statements, which state law requires be open to the public.

Sheeran's own past with the foundation is dicey. When City Councilman Joe Brooks died in 2003, the REF was a benefactor, but a number of checks written to the foundation were deposited into Sheeran's private account. An REF investigation later cleared Sheeran of wrongdoing, showing he'd thought the nearly $1,000 in checks he received were part of the approximately $400 he was owed by the Virginia Retirement System.

School officials also told Style that no REF documents were available.

"They're ignoring it," Wolf says.

Her protests have stymied fellow School Board members and worried former foundation board members. And the response of some school central office administrators, Wolf says, is falling back into the stonewalling that occurred last year, when City Auditor Umesh Dalal first asked for access to the school system's books.

While school officials say the documents aren't available, the foundation's past chairwoman, former School Board Superintendent Lucille Brown, says differently.

"They have all of the documents there," says Brown, who also indicates that the foundation has not been entirely dormant since its last board meeting in August 2005. "We were privileged to have been an avenue through which Comcast awarded a $1,000 scholarship to [one] student in [each of] the Richmond high schools." (Donations have ranged from $7,000 to $9,000 a year.)

A spokeswoman for Comcast confirmed the foundation acted on its behalf through 2006, and Brown says the RPS Education Foundation was a "pass-through" for the funds. Brown says Comcast deposited a check into the foundation account, and the money was then distributed to various universities in the name of the students receiving the awards.

But the foundation hasn't filed income tax forms with the IRS since 2004, according to documents obtained by Style. Failure to file the IRS statements led to penalties amounting to thousands of dollars, according to documents kept by former foundation Treasurer and Board Member Terone B. Green. Among those documents is an IRS bill for $3,216.66 assessed for a late filing in 2003.

Green is executive director of the Alliance of Virginia & Nebraska, a coalition that promotes minority higher-education issues. Green is critical of Wolf for her attack on the foundation's previous board and charges that Wolf has her own agenda.

"Carol Wolf is really pushing for an audit," he says, calling her efforts a "red herring." He refers to a $5,000 check written to the foundation by Wolf's husband, Tom Wolf, for construction of a handicap-accessible playground at Linwood Holton Elementary. "Apparently, the project never went forward," he says, and Wolf was, according to foundation records, personally reimbursed for the $5,000.

Wolf dismisses Green's accusations, saying that the $5,000 was the family's money and was immediately donated to the Oliver Hill Foundation.

In the current city government environment, where nearly all areas of Richmond Public Schools are under financial scrutiny, Wolf says the School Board can't afford to dismiss the foundation's bookkeeping problems.

"They want it both ways — they want to say they don't have to be accountable for the money [because it's separate from the School Board], and at the same time, they have members of the Richmond School Board on it," Wolf says. "They have the superintendent on it, and they have a link to it on our Web site, so we are accountable."

That should change soon, says Superintendent Jewell-Sherman, who's pushing the foundation to change its bylaws and remove School Board members and schools administration members. "I'm sure every dime will be accounted for; I'm sure it will be as clear as glass," Jewell-Sherman says. "And we will move forward."

There's also an important educational imperative to restarting the foundation soon, Jewell-Sherman says. She uses Verizon's $100,000 donation as an example of what corporate money and involvement can accomplish in the classroom.

Verizon had earmarked that money for literacy efforts, she says. In 2003, Richmond's third-grade Standards of Learning pass rates for reading were at 62 percent. In 2005-06, pass rates were up to 75.6 percent.

But more could be done, Jewel-Sherman says. In the counties, similar educational foundations are run by corporate executives in the community, which gives the business community an important outlet to get involved in education.

The Richmond School Board's list of proposed nominees for the foundation's new board, however, is thin on business leaders. The list primarily includes community activists and former school board members. That's misguided, Green says.

"I think they're making a mistake by not appointing some of the people from that letter [from the 26 members of the business community] on the foundation board," Green says. "I would give them strong access to the foundation — because they're good at what they do, and they're good at raising money, and they have money." S

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