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Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams

When it comes to money for school building projects, Henrico County appears to be flush.

Richmond, on the other hand, is busted.

Is this a matter of the city misplaying its cards, or has it been dealt a lousy hand?

Richmond’s financial advisers say the city has virtually maxed out its debt capacity. According to an analysis by Davenport and Company, Richmond can borrow only about $8 million over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Henrico appears headed toward placing a $419.8 million bond question on the ballot in November that would devote more than $270 million to school projects.

Such a vote would come three years after county voters approved a meals tax dedicated to public education.

The rich get richer, and the poor — or at least Richmond schoolchildren — must remain vigilant of falling tiles.

“The issues we face are not new,” Richmond School Board Chairman Jeffrey Bourne said Thursday. “There certainly is a bit of envy with the commitment that other jurisdictions around the commonwealth make that we’re just not getting. And the real impact is we just keep falling further and further behind.”

In Richmond’s case, maintenance deferred often translates into maintenance denied. Repair costs grow “because the problems don’t get better, they get worse,” Bourne said.

Perhaps Richmond, which loves to bask in the kudos of a nationally recognized dining scene, should dedicate a portion of meals tax money to public education.

The implications of Davenport’s report are staggering for a school district that has cited $168.9 million in construction and renovation needs over the next five years.

The city — which has its own capital needs apart from the school district — cannot afford to idle until more debt capacity is freed up in 2022.

Richmond’s rapid growth — fueled by millennials and empty nesters savoring the pleasures of urban living — will skid to a halt if young couples detect a lack of commitment toward the schools. White and middle-class families will opt out or pull out, as has been the practice for decades in a system that is more than 90 percent minority.

It’s easy to understand the pervasive skepticism surrounding talk of investing in anything Richmond. City Hall’s misadventures in financial accounting are well-documented. The mayor is under investigation in a probe into the connection between his church and city government. But incompetence has a partner in this history, and its name is design.

Conversations about the state legislature’s role in placing Richmond in this bind never gain any traction. But the General Assembly’s 1971 ban on annexation for cities of 125,000 or more “as a practical matter ... applied only to the Richmond metropolitan area,” according to “Richmond’s Unhealed History” by Benjamin Campbell.

The resulting ban has prevented the city from expanding its 62.5 square miles, stymied its economic development, stunted its tax base and made meeting its capital needs a daunting task. Further consider the large swaths of Richmond occupied by tax-exempt government properties or poverty-ridden public housing, and it’s not hard to see how Richmond’s tax base — under the best of circumstances — would struggle to maintain and modernize its schools and other facilities.

The stakes in the November mayoral election are high. As much as we like to celebrate the Richmond renaissance, the city is far from out of the woods.

School Board member Kimberly Gray, who is running for City Council in the 2nd District, maintains that the school district’s building needs can be addressed through creativity and innovative solutions. “I think as far as schools, I’m very optimistic about the potential for public-private partnerships to help get us closer to that goal of new construction and renovation,” she said.

She’s also confident that more revenue can be found through an overhaul of the city’s problematic Finance Department. “The first order of business is getting a clear picture of where the money is and getting the right people in that department and getting it fully staffed and accountable,” she said.

Gray realizes Richmond is not Henrico.

“They have a retail base that generates a lot of taxes,” Gray said. “We have high, high poverty, which comes with another set of services we provide the residents. Our demographics are different, our needs are different. But that doesn’t mean our future isn’t bright. The forecast is very good for growth in the city.”

Population growth will ultimately mean revenue growth, she said, “but without a plan in place for what’s to come, then we’re going to fail.”

Bourne appeared more inclined to tweak the city’s debt policy, which currently limits payment on debt to 10 percent of the general fund budget. By raising that percentage to 12 percent, the city would be able to increase its borrowing over the next five years by $243.7 million, city officials were told. But the impact on the city’s bond rating would be uncertain.

“Without any changes in the policy and revenue, then the picture remains very bleak for addressing the critical and dire needs the Richmond school buildings face,” Bourne said.

“I would encourage us to do anything and everything to just push the envelope on what’s fiscally responsible to address the infrastructure needs that we have.”

How the city spends its money is a clear indication of priority, Bourne said, adding that the school system will have to have “tough conversations” with the city in this regard.

“Families clearly see we’re on an upward trajectory, and they want to harness this energy and seize the opportunity to close the gap,” he said. To not take advantage of this sentiment would represent a lost opportunity.

“Not being able to provide learning environments that are safe and new or modern, it affects everything that goes on in public schools. ... Environment affects attitude,” Bourne said. “Our students shouldn’t have to learn in environments like a lot of our students are learning in.”

In that regard, everyone involved — including businesses in need of a skilled and competent workforce — should be heavily invested in the need for strong schools.

We can argue blame for academic underperformance, but it’s hard to examine Richmond’s substandard school buildings and deny the need. To not ante up on behalf of these children is an unwise gamble on the city’s future.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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