Organizers claim success in schools petition drive

Jeremy Lazarus | 8/11/2017, 11:15 a.m.
The petition drive to put the issue of modernizing Richmond’s dilapidated public schools before city voters has succeeded, according to ...
Paul Goldman

The petition drive to put the issue of modernizing Richmond’s dilapidated public schools before city voters has succeeded, according to the leader of the campaign

Political strategist Paul Goldman told the Free Press on Wednesday that the Put Schools First campaign will have submitted about 16,000 signatures supporting a ballot initiative by Monday, Aug. 14, far more than needed.

“There is no question that our initiative will be on the ballot. Richmond needs to be prepared for that. The only question now is whether it will be on the November ballot or whether a special election will be needed in December,” he said.

He said petitions with 14,000 signatures had been submitted to Richmond Circuit Court as of Monday, but he is not certain that enough valid signatures of registered voters were included to meet the number required — 10,398 — to get the initiative on the November ballot.

He expects the campaign to reach the required number next Monday, when he plans to submit at least 2,000 more signatures. He estimated that about 70 percent of the submitted signatures would prove to be valid.

According to Richmond Circuit Court Clerk Edward Jewett, the Office of the General Registrar, which is checking the petitions, had reported 7,450 valid signatures as of Wednesday afternoon — still 2,948 signatures short.

However, the registrar still had 4,000 signatures to check from the petitions already submitted, Mr. Goldman said.

Under state law, the court has until Aug. 18 to issue an order to put the schools initiative on the ballot, Mr. Goldman said. “It’s possible we will meet that deadline.”

“But if we miss,” he said, the court would be able order a special election once the mandatory number of signatures is reached.

“We’ve already set a record for collecting signatures,” Mr. Goldman said. “This shows our proposal has overwhelming support from the public.”

The issue has taken on fresh urgency as a result of efforts by teachers and parents of students attending George Mason Elementary to spotlight the poor condition of that Church Hill building, part of which is more than 100 years old.

The Put Schools First ballot initiative calls for a modest change to the City Charter or constitution. The proposal would give Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney six months to come up with a financially feasible plan to replace or renovate at least 38 of the 46 city school buildings or tell the public that the city cannot afford such a massive project, most recently estimated to cost between $500 million and $700 million.

Mr. Goldman, who in 2003 led the successful petition drive that resulted in the creation of an elected mayor for Richmond, began the Put Schools First petition drive in May in partnership with the Richmond Crusade for Voters. The Falls of the James Chapter of the Sierra Club later joined the campaign.

If the proposal gets on the ballot and wins a majority of the vote in the November election or in a special election, it would go to the General Assembly for final approval. It would become part of the City Charter if the proposal passes the House of Delegates and state Senate in the 2018 General Assembly session and is signed by the governor.

No matter what happens, Mr. Goldman said the proposal would once more shine a spotlight on the failure of the state and city governments to address worn-out school buildings.

Richmond replaced four old schools with new buildings in 2013, including two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.

But the remainder of the schools have unaddressed maintenance needs that date back decades. That includes three elementary and one middle school that the city opened in 1998 and 1999.

Mr. Goldman said the big surprise from the campaign has been the lack of support from the mayor, City Council members or other elected officials. He noted that Mayor Stoney campaigned on fixing schools as did some members of the council, but since taking office, there has been no movement.

“You would think that our elected officials would want to get out in front of this,” Mr. Goldman said, but “it hasn’t happened, and none will get any credit for this effort.”