Richmond education officials leading the charge for more money were surprised by Mayor Dwight Jones' announcement last week that he would set aside $2 million in additional tax revenue for school maintenance costs.
A day later, Assistant Superintendent Tommy Kranz offered a lesson in why better communication might matter more than a couple of spare million.
Kranz gave a tour of the new $41 million Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School just before the School Board's facilities task force meeting. The Jones administration pitched it as a community center as much as a schoolhouse.
But Kranz says cost-cutting measures midway through construction meant that such features as a community clinic have no independent entrance.
So the community clinic isn't used at all.
"It's strange," Kranz says.
Second District School Board member and task force co-chairwoman Kim Gray seethed at the news. It's not exactly the grand vision laid out for a community school that would help galvanize an impoverished neighborhood, she said, noting a pattern.
"A lot of the issues we've talked about have been a disconnect between the city and schools," Gray said.
The mayor's decision to maintain the real-estate tax rate and direct funds toward schools without consulting the board shows the same disconnect, she says. The move comes after Jones saw heavy criticism for pushing back on Kranz's assertion that the district has $35 million in maintenance needs. Jones has also formed his own group to sort out the school district's finances.
"I still believe that sometimes less is more," Jones said in a statement last week, "and that if RPS can work towards correcting the size of the system they are operating, we can save money, better direct the available resources, and hopefully return to lowering the tax burden on the residents of the city."
Gray wants Jones' office to work with the task force directly.
"Everything is so heavily politicized in terms of meeting the needs of children that a lot of the time we lose focus," Gray said. "I want us to get in a room and have conversations that are honest and open, so that we accomplish the goal of providing safe and adequate educational settings for our students."
Her task force was an open invitation to City Hall to get in that room. Kranz, the facilities and operations chief who's been on the job since June, delivered a 3-inch-thick packet to a dozen task force members explaining school enrollment and state requirements.
But Kranz cautioned that enrollment numbers alone don't tell the story. Community engagement with a school can matter more.
"What it means is the community made a choice to have smaller schools," he said. "It depends on what kind of schools we want to be."
City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson wants the Jones administration to continue pushing for new community-oriented schools, including in her district a new Overby-Sheppard to go alongside the new Dove Court housing project. But she said labeling anything as a community school without collaboration from the community it serves would continue the pattern of millions of dollars spent and promises unfulfilled.
"We can't afford to keep telling these myths to ourselves, when we haven't done the work that needs to be done," Robertson says. "We don't have to wait to start building another building."
While Robertson has been actively participating in the task force, the Jones administration lost its liaison in September when Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall abruptly resigned. He hasn't been replaced, and Gray says Jones' decisions about school funding apparently are being made without any school input.
"There's been no invitation to the conversation he's having on school finance," Gray says. "I would hope that we could look at the entire picture, with a long-term and a short-term plan toward fixing our schools."
School Board vice chairwoman and task force co-chairwoman Kristen Larson says the group began meeting in April as a way to highlight building issues throughout the city. The tour of the still-shining Martin Luther King shows that what the task force finds is less important than finding a way to have control over the outcome.
"That's the problem with these plans being made without school input," Larson says. "We live in this house, so we have to build it." S