Richmond’s elected officials continue to be at odds over the best way forward for a Richmond Public Schools facilities plan.
The City Council, the School Board and Mayor Levar Stoney met Monday night as part of the Education Compact, and they still aren’t in agreement over both the funding stream and the content for the facilities plan passed by the School Board last month. The meeting was the first time all three groups have met since Stoney last week proposed raising the city’s meals tax to help fund a plan.
“I do think we all need to go back to the drawing board,” said Councilwoman Kim Gray, who represents the city’s 2nd District.
Gray, a former School Board member, raised concern about the content of the plan, specifically the different sizes in elementary schools proposed in the East End and South Side.
Another former School Board member who now serves on the council, Kristen Larson, also expressed concern.
“There’s a limited amount of money we’re looking at, so we’re just trying to figure out the reasons behind this,” Larson said.
Councilman Parker Agelasto, who represents the 5th District, wants a cigarette tax on the table to fund school facilities.
“I don’t think we can fairly put all of the onus on one tax bracket,” Agelasto said after the group received a report saying the reasoning for a meals tax increase was because of the “discretionary” and “progressive” nature of it.
The report, from Davenport & Company, the city’s financial adviser, indicated that a cigarette tax is an option but isn’t being considered because it’s a “declining source,” “less reliable” and “too small” of a revenue source.
Agelasto said after the meeting that he plans to reintroduce a cigarette tax, which he tried unsuccessfully to have considered during the budget process last year.
The three bodies were in agreement that new school facilities are a necessity for the city. The conflict comes in the money and the means.
“Richmond Public Schools have a number of critical and serious facilities needs, and those needs have been neglected way before any of us had held these offices,” Stoney said.
Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, who represents the 7th District and said she supports the mayor’s plan, added, “This is a non-negotiable necessity in this moment.”
Stoney has proposed raising the city’s meals tax from 6 percent to 7.5 percent, a move that would generate about $9.1 million in revenue per year and would expand the city’s limited debt capacity by $150 million for money earmarked for school facilities.
“I know that some have argued that we can find funds for our schools’ needs without raising any taxes,” Stoney said Monday. “Unfortunately, I do not own a magic wand and do not have $150 million in the seat cushions in City Hall.”
The papers were formally introduced during a special council meeting held directly before the Education Compact meeting at the Richmond Police Department Training Academy near Virginia Union University.
Reaction to Stoney’s meals tax proposal has been mixed.
Many restaurant owners across the city have voiced opposition, saying the sector is being unfairly targeted. Others have said they’ll dine out more if the meals tax is increased, given that additional revenue would go toward school improvements.
Stoney’s measure would leave a $74.8 million gap in funding for the facilities plan passed by the School Board in December. That $224.8 million plan, reviewed by interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz at Monday’s meeting, would build five new schools over the first five years, with two other schools undergoing major renovations. The plan reflects the school system’s “highest priorities” when it comes to infrastructure.
“You can’t do one thing to fix facilities in this district,” Kranz said Monday. “You can’t build your way out of it. You can’t rezone your way out of it.
“You can’t do anything by just snapping your fingers.”
When asked about Stoney’s plan, School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said: “We know we need more, but it’s a start.”
“I believe the time is now because the longer we wait, the cost will increase, our buildings will continue to age, and our children will continue not to have the opportunity to learn in a state-of-the-art facility,” Page said to the full group.
The next joint meeting is scheduled for April 30.