Yes on Proposition A

10/19/2017, 6:42 p.m.

For decades, as our school buildings have grown older and begun to decay, we, the people, have had little say in whether city leaders should completely renovate them or replace them with modern structures.

Unlike the counties, which must get public approval for bond issues, we have relied on our City Council representatives to determine how much of a priority our school buildings are.

For the first time, we will an opportunity to register our opinion on the issue of school modernization when we cast our ballots on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Exasperated residents, including members of the Richmond Crusade for Voters and the Sierra Club, have made it possible.

They followed the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and took the matter into their own hands, instead of waiting for the mayor and council.

Led by a former Virginia Democratic Party official, Paul Goldman, those residents collected a record 15, 000 signatures from our citizens to put the issue on the ballot so that we could register our opinion as to whether the time for action has come.

The citizen initiative will be listed as Proposition A. It is titled “Section 6.15 – Fulfilling the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunities.” It will be found on the flip side of the one-page ballot that voters will receive at the polls.

Like us, if you are indignant about falling ceiling tiles, moldy classrooms and other problems in the buildings where we hope and expect our children will learn, this is an unprecedented opportunity to speak out.

The premise is simple: The proposal calls on Mayor Levar Stoney to consult with School Board and City Council and then to create a fully-funded plan to modernize all of the school buildings to present to the council for consideration or to tell us why he cannot do so.

That’s all. It does not obligate the council to carry out the plan. But if we all say we want this, we are giving the mayor and the council a mandate to make this a priority — and a mandate to act is a powerful tool. Here’s the bottom line: You can’t solve a problem without a plan to solve the problem, and that is what Proposition A proposes.

The School Board has presented numerous plans to the council, but all essentially were wish lists because only the City Council can provide the funding, and it has not.

The reality is that a large majority of our buildings are obsolete. Since 1997, we have only improved or replaced about 10 school buildings, leaving at least 34 that are past their useful life, which is about 40 years. A state study a few years ago indicated that Richmond had one of the largest collections of outdated buildings in Virginia.

And if nothing is done, our children will be attending these same buildings for years to come.

In 1955, in the Brown v. Board of Education II decision that followed the famed 1954 Brown I decision outlawing government-enforced racial segregation of schools, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the quality school buildings was one element of ensuring the opportunity for equal education.

Today, our schools, with their ignored maintenance, appear to violate that decision and create monuments to segregation more shameful than even the Confederate statues that decorate some our streets and are the subject of a current uproar.

We have heard plenty of objections, such as this proposal would tie the mayor’s hands or block him from proposing tax increases to finance what could be an expensive program for change. Some estimates put the cost of modernizing the school at $500 million or more.

But that is not the case. The mayor must show us there is no other way to get the job done short of raising taxes. The building program would take time, and Richmond would not need to borrow all the money at once. Best estimates suggest our city might have to pay 2 cents to 5 cents of each dollar of the tax revenue the city collects to cover the annual debt service.

And if a tax increase is needed, then at least we would all know that our leaders have done their level best before they come back to us for more money. Still, we need a good plan in place first, and focusing on taxes before that happens could mean more years of failure to get the buildings modernized.

Some have said this proposition interferes with the authority of the School Board as it vests the mayor with authority to create a fully-funded plan. But the mayor currently has the authority to create such a plan under state law and the City Charter.

Some object to this plan because it does not deal with the academic shortcomings in our public schools or does not ensure Richmond will get more state funding for school operations.

Certainly, new school buildings do not guarantee a quality education. The data on student educational achievement at our newest high school and our newest middle school bear that out.

But we definitely cannot provide a 21st century education in buildings that were designed for learning in the 1950s, a truism supported by various academic studies. And it somehow seems wrong to halt any progress until we address all educational challenges.

Our elected officials, including Mayor Stoney, who calls himself the “education mayor,” and most of our council members promised last year during their campaigns that school modernization would be a top priority if they were elected.

So far, it seems the issue has remained on the back burner.

This advisory referendum— which would still need approval of the General Assembly and so far only one member of the Richmond delegation, Republican Delegate Manoli Loupassi, has embraced it — might not be perfect.

But it would create a transparent, accountable process demanding a solution to what we all know is a real problem for our city.

That is why we support this initiative and urge you to do so on Election Day.