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Mayor on hook for school modernization plan with charter change signing

Jeremy Lazarus | 4/13/2018, 8:25 a.m.
Backed by a unanimous legislature, Gov. Ralph S. Northam has signed a new charter measure for Richmond that will require ...

Just a year ago, it was only an idea.

Now it’s the law.

Backed by a unanimous legislature, Gov. Ralph S. Northam has signed a new charter measure for Richmond that will require Mayor Levar M. Stoney to come up with a fully funded plan for modernizing every city school without a tax increase or explain why he cannot.

Paul Goldman, the political strategist who drafted the measure, led the campaign to get it on the ballot last fall when it won voter support and lobbied for its passage in the legislature. He said, “The mayor must at least try.”

Speaking at a press conference last Friday, Mr. Goldman said that the goal of the legislation is to get a plan in place.

“We have heard numerous estimates bandied about, that it would cost $500 million or $800 million or $600 million. But until there is a plan in place, there is no way to know. That’s all the voters asked for is that the mayor try to create a plan the city could move forward with. That’s not too much to ask.”

Mayor Stoney has not said how he will deal with the change to the City Charter that becomes effective July 1. It also requires him to deliver a plan by Feb. 1, 2019, if he can.

The mayor has said publicly that “he could wash his hands of it on July 1” if he chose to by simply saying it cannot not be done, but he has no plans to take the easy way out. He said he and his team would “explore everything. But if it can’t be done, I’m not going to blow smoke up the tails of city residents.”

He called it “easy to put a measure on the ballot that we’ll all have new schools. But someone has to find the dollars. That’s the hard part.”

Already, Mayor Stoney has indicated that he has done enough for the next few years. His proposed spending plan for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years includes $150 million for new school construction, with an estimated $9 million a year to repay construction costs generated by a 1.5 percent increase in the city meals tax that he pushed through City Council earlier this year. The meals tax increase becomes effective July 1.

That money appears to be earmarked by the School Board to replace a middle school and high school in South Side and two elementary schools — one in South Side and one in Church Hill. But it would leave more than 30 buildings that the majority of students attend in increasingly poor shape — buildings the mayor has labeled “monuments to segregation” and that he promised to deal with in his 2016 election campaign.

The mayor did not propose any spending cuts in his spending plan to generate more funding for school construction. And so far, City Council, which is reviewing the plan and considering amendments, has not offered any reductions to add to the construction dollars.