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Showered With Boos, Wilder Promises 15 New Schools

Paging Dr. Phil ?Ý or maybe Dr. Frankenstein.

Neither was in attendance at Monday's Richmond Public Schools convocation ceremony to witness an apparent emotional reconciliation between Mayor Doug Wilder and members of the city's School Board and administration.

Nor were they there to watch Wilder's miraculous raising from the dead his plan to build 15 new schools, a proposal he'd himself publicly euthanized less than a year ago.

According to witnesses, Wilder and his acting chief administrative officer, Harry Black, arrived unannounced at the yearly event, traditionally staged for teachers and faculty, at the Arthur Ashe Center. Invited to speak by School Board Chairman George Braxton, Wilder rose to the occasion.

Only to be met by a chorus of boos.

"There appears to have been some difference of opinion between the audience and some of the mayor's previously stated positions," says one witness who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noting that the jeers came from "about 10 percent of the audience -- noticeable, but not overwhelming."

Those in attendance say Wilder spoke movingly of his years as a student in the city's public school system, a lack of indoor plumbing at his elementary school and of similar disadvantages at his high school. Then, according to an email sent by Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman, Wilder pledged his support for Richmond schools and resurrected his pledge to build new school buildings.

Later during the convocation ceremony Wilder hugged Jewell-Sherman.

New school construction was initially a key component of Wilder's City of the Future plan, but was abandoned by the mayor after he lambasted school leaders for failing to act on his demand to close some city schools immediately.

"It was amazing, we were surprised -- delighted," says School Board member Lisa Dawson, who views Wilder's appearance as an apparent reversal of previous policy declarations. "He didn't talk about how it was going to come about. He did indicate that he had always promised [15 new schools], which would suggest it was a return to the original plan."

One City Council source, wishing to remain anonymous, suggests Wilder's turnaround really is just reading a script written for him by Council when they passed the 2007-08 budget. That budget nixed a bid by Wilder to add two schools for gifted students and reinstated the original City of the Future plan.

But in light of previous policy reversals, Chairman Braxton says he's hopeful that the mayor intended a literal interpretation of his message.

"The mayor never ceases to surprise me in anything he does," Braxton says. "What exactly it means, I'm sure we'll find out at some point."

Not everybody has greeted the mayor's turnabout favorably, including his former chief policy advisor, Paul Goldman. Goldman authored the original City of the Future plan, including the method of paying for schools construction using state historic tax credits to cut construction costs.

"What they've actually done is they've wasted two years and cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars," Goldman says. "There are real consequences to these kinds of political games that have been played and the trouble is, it's the kids that are going to pay."

Goldman suggests Wilder's harsher critics might see his policy reversal as "a deathbed conversion."

Dawson was more hopeful. "He's really good at this," she says, noting that there were no boos when Wilder finished speaking. Now it's a question of following through: "I think a lot of people in that room need to see what really happens. If his remarks are followed by another demand for schools to move out [of City Hall], that could undermine some of that trust."

There were signs almost immediately after Wilder's appearance that a session or two with Dr. Phil might be necessary before a reconciliation really occurs between Wilder and schools officials.

An invoice sent last week by the city's real estate services asks for the School Board's first quarterly lease payment on its space at City Hall. The bill was for $141,149.50, exactly $141,147.00 more than what is owed for the quarter, according to the annual $10 lease adopted in City Council's 2007-08 budget.

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