4/30/2018, 11:39 a.m.
We are greatly disappointed by Richmond City Council’s failure Monday night to approve a tax on cigarettes.
The 80 cents per pack tax, proposed by Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, would have generated $5 million annually that would have been dedicated to the repair and maintenance of Richmond’s aged and dilapidated public school buildings.
Several teachers spoke at Monday’s council meeting about the horrid conditions they and their students face each day that distract from the central mission of learning. One teacher talked about rodent droppings she finds each morning on students’ work, along with roaches that scurry in the classrooms.
Others talked about pieces of the ceiling falling and students wearing their coats in class because the heat’s not working.
Another teacher talked about trying to provide an online science experiment for her class, but because of the lack of internet connection, she was going to have to move them to another part of the building. Because that part of the building had no heat, she said she rigged an Ethernet connection to conduct the experiment in her warm classroom.
Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson said she wouldn’t want to attend a school with such deplorable conditions, or send her children there. But she and five other council members rejected the proposal for the city to tax cigarettes.
Her rationale: With the poor and people of color likely to be disproportionately affected by such a tax, the proceeds of such a tax should be used to mitigate health and addiction problems from smoking.
Other council members, including Councilwoman Cynthia I. Newbille, stated they want to see a comprehensive plan to fund school construction and maintenance needs, not piecemeal suggestions, such as the cigarette tax.
We urged support for the cigarette tax in recent weeks, believing that it, like the recent meals tax hike the City Council approved for schools, would be another step toward achieving the desired goal of fixing the long-standing problems with school facilities.
If the city administration and City Council don’t take small steps, how can the goal of $600 million to bring our schools up to snuff ever be reached?
We applaud Councilman Agelasto for his bold proposal and Council President Chris A. Hilbert and Councilwoman Kristen Larson for supporting it. Roughly 90 other cities and towns in Virginia are benefiting from revenue provided through a local cigarette tax. But Richmond, again, failed to levy such a tax even for such a critically important reason.
As Councilman Agelasto so rightly noted, the city has given millions of dollars in incentives to host a Washington NFL training camp in Richmond, to have Stone Brewery develop a beer plant and bistro in Fulton, the plans for which are now changing, and for other projects. Yet we are skimping on what’s so important for our children and their education.
The time for meetings, confabs, conferences, committees and task forces is over. We already have an Education Compact made up of City Council, School Board, parents, teachers, administrators and community members who are supposed to meet monthly to come up with recommendations to improve RPS, including long-term funding strategies to meet the operating and capital needs of schools and other programs supporting children. City Council, the School Board and the people of Richmond know what they have to do if Richmond Public Schools is to survive and our children can thrive.
We must remove the physical obstacles to learning that our horrible buildings and the unhealthy and unsafe conditions create. We must properly fund new schools and provide the needed maintenance for current buildings.
Again, we call on Mayor Levar M. Stoney, the city administration and the City Council to find more money in the proposed two-year budget to fund school maintenance and to put any shards of savings toward this primary goal.
We also call on schools Superintendent Jason Kamras and members of the Richmond School Board to scour their proposed budget for savings that can be shifted to improving school buildings.
This problem will continue to plague the city — and detract from our children’s education and their futures and the future of Richmond — until we all stop the hand wringing and lip service and step up to the plate and craft some real solutions.