Last spring, Richmond teenagers marched on City Hall to “protest poor school conditions” caused by the “decrepit state” of repair to the city’s K-12 facilities.
They got to speak to Mayor Dwight Clinton Jones. He conceded their point. The average Richmond K-12 facility was built in 1955, the year Brooklyn Dodger legend Jackie Robinson stole home in the World Series before a standing-room-only crowd at Yankee Stadium. By normal educational standards, these buildings were already obsolete when the students’ parents were in school. Section 1 of Article VIII of the Constitution of Virginia, passed when their grandparents were students, is entitled “Public Schools of high quality to be maintained.” This constitutional provision supposedly ensures that all students would have a building where bathrooms work, rodents don’t roam, roofs don’t leak, mold doesn’t grow and heating systems operate. Richmond’s school Superintendent, Dana Bedden, admits these are “some of the worst conditions I’ve seen in educational facilities.” Yet another study conducted after the student march declared it would take “$29 million” in capital funding to “address immediate operational and safety issues.”
But Mayor Jones said city funds were not available to address the problems. He and the Richmond City Council are still debating competing schemes committing tens of millions of tax dollars and public assets to build a new minor league baseball stadium. The Richmond School Board said it lacked power to address these problems, although Virginia law says the opposite.
Last week, as the schools prepared to open, Mayor Jones unexpectedly proposed shaving one penny off the city’s property tax rate. He said Richmond didn’t need the roughly $2 million in revenue. The cut would save the average homeowner $20 per year. Jones said the “health and safety” concerns in the public schools had to be put in context with “other city needs.” After all, explained the mayor, the “reality is that only 11 percent of our population is being served by the [Richmond Public Schools],” and he needed to look out for the entire 100 percent.
The mayor’s “11 percent” come overwhelmingly from African American families of modest incomes. Democrats bashed Mitt Romney in 2012 for making similar comments. They said such views were cruel and insensitive.
Richmond is Virginia’s biggest Democratic town. But no city body or other Democratic organization criticized the mayor. Why? Because this former chairman of the General Assembly’s legislative Black Caucus also serves as chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party.
Mayor Jones knows it would take roughly $2 million a year to pay the debt service should funds be borrowed to fix these health and safety issues – roughly equal to one penny on the property tax.
In his immortal protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan asked: “How many ears must one man have/Before he can hear people cry?”
Last we checked, the Mayor has two. The city council and school board have 36. One would think that would be enough.