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Wednesday, 12 December 2018 15:33

The Last Gasp of Massive Resistance: Richmond’s 2019 Coliseum Scheme

Written by Jeff Thomas | Blue Virginia
Richmond Urban Renewal Project Area, 2018 Richmond Urban Renewal Project Area, 2018

On December 8, 2018, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney led a march of more than a thousand people on the state Capitol to call for more funding for education. “Each and every day, there is a young man or a young woman who wakes up with a dream, and it is our job — as elected officials, as teachers, all working together — to give them the legs to stand on to achieve that dream,” Stoney said. “Unfortunately, the Commonwealth of Virginia has cut the legs from underneath many of our children.”

On June 19, 2017, Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter K. Burnell Evans published a horrifying exposé on a city elementary school. She reported that “teachers begin their days by wiping rodent droppings from students’ desks, said Ingrid DeRoo, the George Mason [Elementary School] site coordinator for Communities in Schools of Richmond. ‘Some teachers wear breathing masks all day in order to teach,’ DeRoo said of the air quality in what is widely acknowledged to be the district’s worst school building among dozens in need of major repairs.” Mason opened ninety-five years ago and was last renovated when Jimmy Carter was president. The scandal fomented a fierce response: parents and teachers donned surgical masks in public meetings; politicians pledged to do better; a petition to fix the problem collected 14,000 signatures in a city of 230,000; and other reporters wrote dozens of follow-up pieces in the city’s other news outlets.

The School Board called a public meeting to hear citizens’ concerns. They responded with a litany of severe problems: “extreme hot and cold conditions, leaking bathrooms, falling tiles and infestations of bugs and rodents in their classrooms. A teacher said she regularly has to rescue children trapped in bathrooms, due to the failure of old doorknobs.” “My son has been sick 10 times in a row, and I can’t afford to miss work,” a parent of two children at Mason said. Fourth-grade teacher Hope Talley told the Board: “Our parents want what’s best for their kids, just like any other parent. They speak [their fears] to us, we hear them, and we have to explain why their child had to do without heat today.” “From 2006 to 2017, I’ve cleaned up rat poop every morning before my kids come in,” she told a reporter. “Every. Day.” “I cannot stress to you enough that the building of George Mason is in a state of emergency,” DeRoo said. “It is unsafe, unsanitary and harmful to our students and staff.”

Interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz noted that the “building leaks like a sieve.” He acknowledged to Evans that every couple of months, the smell of natural gas became so overwhelming that “the fire department and city officials respond.” On the other hand, he maintained the school was safe, and stated that “if I wouldn’t send my grandchildren into a building, I’m sure not going to send anyone else’s child.” (Two years earlier, Kranz had sung a different tune, saying that the slightly better but still inferior Overby-Sheppard Elementary School “isn’t one we should have our children in.”) He proposed options for Mason with costs ranging from $105,000 to $10 million; building a new school would cost “between $22 million and $35 million,” and would take years to complete. The School Board meeting adjourned without action, guaranteeing that the elementary would remain“a place where children will still confront the acrid smell of urine.” It was reported that “the crowd proceeded to chant ‘our children deserve better’ as they left the hearing.”

It was no surprise when the Board voted two weeks later to fund the absolute lowest option presented, for $105,000. To some extent, the Board’s hands were tied, as overall tax and budget levels were set by the Mayor and City Council. School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page noted that they had “facilities plans for all schools dating back 20 years, but with no funding, the plans cannot be executed.” In the most recent example, after the Board experienced a 100% turnover after the 2016 elections – not a single member was reelected, though two successfully ran for City Council – the new members requested $207.4 million for “school buildings needs” and received less than 4% of their request from City Council.

Many residents felt that Richmond government had plenty of money to address these issues. “We’re not lacking in money, y’all, we’re lacking in moral commitment,” said former Councilman Marty Jewell. Richmond protected its bond rating by assiduously maintaining a “self-imposed,” arbitrary debt level. Even within this constriction, the cityhad “about $8.5 million in [bond] capacity through 2021, and about $321 million combined between 2022 and 2026. Richmonders frequently pointed out that city government had built the Washington Redskins a $10 million training camp and paid them a $500,000 annual subsidy, based on lofty promises that never materialized, just as experts predicted they would not. The Richmond Times-Dispatch published “a photograph of a decrepit boys’ bathroom at the city’s George Mason Elementary school, last renovated 37 years ago, showing two of four urinals in working order and only one operational sink.”

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