State Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, said Tuesday that he’ll push to “save” two high-performing, majority-white Richmond elementary schools that might be merged with majority-black schools.
Facing a tough re-election fight this fall, Sturtevant, a former Richmond School Board member, used the first day of school to wade into an intense neighborhood debate over the future of the two schools and the city’s racial divides.
Mary Munford Elementary in the West End and the Fan District’s William Fox Elementary are both under consideration to be combined with schools a few miles away, an idea pitched by school leaders as a way to create more racially balanced student bodies in the city’s whitest schools.
Declaring his opposition to rezoning plans that could affect the two schools, Sturtevant circulated a petition titled “Save our neighborhood schools” that calls the proposals “wrong for our community.” He promised to draft legislation that would require school boards across Virginia to hold a new election or a voter referendum before redrawing school attendance zones to allow the public to render a verdict before changes are made.
Some city officials, including Mayor Levar Stoney, characterized Sturtevant’s stance as an election-year attention grab and an intrusion into local decision-making authority.
In an interview, Sturtevant, a top target for Democrats looking to flip the state Senate this year, said Fox and Munford are two of the best in the region and a “jewel in the crown of Richmond Public Schools.”
“The concern — from what I heard — is that this is breaking up two very strong schools in a school system with a lot of challenges,” Sturtevant said. “And it’s something that was never put to the folks who want to send their kids to these schools, who want to invest in Richmond and Richmond Public Schools.”
Though the city school system has accepted public feedback on the plans, Sturtevant said no School Board members campaigned on a platform of rezoning Munford and Fox.
Stoney, who has not taken a public position on the rezoning plans, called Sturtevant’s announcement an “election-time gimmick.”
“I think we need more community engagement and more working together and collaboration on such an endeavor, not political stunts,” Stoney said.
Sturtevant is being challenged this year by Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, a community college administrator.
In response to Tuesday’s announcement, Hashmi’s campaign noted that Sturtevant was sued in 2013 by a Richmond parent who accused him and other School Board members of holding secret talks to protect white enrollment at certain schools during the rezoning process.
“Now he’s back to playing politics with our schools again in an effort to distract people from his record voting in lockstep with Republicans in the Senate to undermine public education funding,” said Hashmi campaign manager Philip Stein. “Richmonders don’t need a lecture on public schools; they need a state senator who will fight for every student’s access to a quality education.”
The lawsuit was dismissed in early 2016 when the parent who filed it moved into a different school district.
The idea of combining the elementary schools with others first emerged this summer when one of the initial options created by Ohio-based consultant Cropper GIS “paired” Fox with John B. Cary Elementary, two schools that both meet the state’s full accreditation standards. Under that plan, Fox would have gone from 66% white to 47% and Cary from 86% black to 52%.
Students in the one large school zone would attend Fox for kindergarten through second grade and Cary for third through fifth grades.
Initial feedback to the idea was negative, but became more balanced as the rezoning process has played out. Both of the initial proposals left Mary Munford untouched.
The latest options — released in early August — bring Munford into the fold, however. One option would combine Munford with Cary, and combine Fox with George W. Carver Elementary School.
Under that option, Munford would go from 77% white to 55%. Fox — this time combined with Carver — would go from roughly 2 in 3 students being white to 41%.
Fox would still be paired with Cary in another proposal.
Changing the school zones, Sturtevant said, could split siblings between buildings, making drop-off and pickup harder for working parents. For many young families, he said, Munford and Fox were the “driving force” that led them to buy a house in Richmond.
“This is obviously a major change for them,” he said.
Parents both in support of and against the idea have turned out at community meetings across the city since the new plan’s release. They’ve also taken to an online feedback form the district is using to curate opinions.
“The school system should support its neighborhood schools and should focus on building a pipeline of high-achieving schools that keep families in Richmond,” one Munford community member wrote.
Others threatened to move out of the city or send their children to private schools. Some, though, supported the idea.
“Munford is a great school, but we did not like what it represented: the old Richmond under segregation. We are both millennials with a child on the way,” a prospective Munford parent wrote. “We want our child to have the opportunity to attend a diverse school, just as we did. We are strong proponents of Option B pairing Munford and Cary.”
The School Board is scheduled to vote on a plan by the end of the calendar year.
Members of the city School Board suggested Tuesday that Sturtevant should focus on other things, such as improving education funding, before getting involved in School Board business.
“Our state senators truly have the ability to transform schools by ensuring we have the funds to cover the basics,” said Kenya Gibson, who represents the city’s 3rd District on the School Board and lives in Sturtevant’s district. “There are plenty of schools in his district and throughout the state that need new roofs, working AC and chairs.”
Said 2nd District School Board member Scott Barlow: “I’d prefer that Senator Sturtevant use his influence and experience in public schools to advocate for sufficient resources for all of Richmond’s public school students, not to turn our rezoning process into a Senate campaign issue.”
State funding per student has dropped 9% since the Great Recession, according to a report last year by the Richmond-based Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and national expert on school desegregation, called Sturtevant’s proposal “deeply ironic.”
“This is a state representative interfering with a local decision-making process and in the past we’ve seen local control invoked as a means to preserve segregation,” she said. “This turns that on its head.”
Siegel-Hawley added: “It’s reminiscent of the era of Massive Resistance when people who oppose integration use whatever means necessary to do so.”
Sturtevant served on the Richmond School Board from 2013 through 2015, the year he was elected to a suburban Senate seat that stretches from Richmond’s West End to Chesterfield and Powhatan counties. He now lives in Chesterfield.
Sturtevant, a former Munford parent whose family is multiracial, said that if city officials believe rezoning is the right way to desegregate schools, they should make that case publicly and let residents respond through the ballot box.
“There is value in having it put to voters,” Sturtevant said. “Perhaps they agree. Maybe they don’t.”