Michael Paul Williams

In a perfect world, voters would march to the polls in unison to vote decisively in November for a city charter change to hasten the modernization of Richmond’s decrepit schools.

The General Assembly, with utmost dispatch, would sign off on the will of the voters in the advisory referendum and make the requested amendment in the charter.

Mayor Levar Stoney would present to the City Council, within the six-month deadline, a fully funded plan to modernize the schools with — read his lips — no new taxes.

Cue the applause.

But if it were that simple, would we be here in the first place, with George Mason Elementary serving as the poster school for dilapidated facilities and South Richmond schools overcrowded?

There are two great movements underway in Richmond: one to remove Confederate monuments, another to create a public school infrastructure we are not ashamed of. You might say the legacy of one situation begat the other.

The petition of referendum quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying education “is the great equalizer.” Paul Goldman, the force behind the petition, says the state of Richmond’s school facilities represents “62 years of failed promises to the most vulnerable children in the city” dating back to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education II decision.

This, he says, is not a question of money, but of will. “These buildings are a moral issue,” he said.

But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Richmond Public Schools does not lack a facilities plan. What it lacks is the money to carry it out.

Still, this petition gambit is well-played. Richmond residents are eager to vent their frustration over the state of the city’s schools, which are viewed as hindering the Great RVA Comeback. Any elected official who opposes the referendum — or questions whether this charter amendment goes beyond “the structure or administration of city government” as opined by City Attorney Allen Jackson — risks being labeled as anti-voter and anti-democratic.

“Despite its flaws, after consultation with City Council and other stakeholders, I have decided not to challenge the legality of the School Modernization Referendum,” Stoney said in a statement Monday. “I wholeheartedly share the concerns of those who signed the petition. However, I believe our schools’ challenges are best addressed through the comprehensive, collaborative and responsible approach adopted by the Richmond City Council and Richmond Public School Board in the recent RVA Education Compact.

“Funding the facilities needs of our schools is not a new issue. It is an old problem, decades in the making that will take years to solve, and I believe the serious challenges before us are best served by those willing to prioritize public service over publicity and political gimmickry.”

Ouch!

“I endorse the school modernization plan,” said Dawn Page, chairwoman of the School Board. “I believe voters spoke during the November 2016 election and they have spoken yet again with the record number of signatures supporting the School Modernization referendum.”

Page said the vote “provides a measure of urgency to one of the most pressing issues facing our school district: facilities.”

Beyond council members Kimberly Gray and Kristen Larson — who co-chaired the Facilities Task Force as members of the Richmond School Board — few elected officials seemed inclined to challenge the will of the voters to vote.

Of course, the result could be unpredictable. Voters could send their advisory referendum to the legislature only to have the General Assembly reject it or alter it into something unrecognizable.

Councilman Parker Agelasto knows the risk, but appreciates what the referendum could achieve.

“We need very much to keep our eyes focused and our attention set on addressing the matter of our school infrastructure needs,” he said Monday.

This approach, he says, “reinforces what everybody knows: that we’ve got to come up with a funding plan.”

People elected office seekers with the expectation that they’d improve the schools, Agelasto said. “The only way that voters can dictate to their elected officials outside the election cycle is to put it into the charter.”

You could argue that eight months in office for Stoney and a new School Board with an interim superintendent hasn’t been a lot of time to move decisively on schools. But Agelasto says the city administration and council are experienced enough to have hit the ground running.

He blames the delay in addressing the school problem on “political apathy.”

“People don’t want to make hard decisions, and this, unfortunately, is going to call for a hard decision,” Agelasto said.

But is the charter the proper device to achieve the outcome?

“I think long term, the way the charter will be changed, it’s so vague that it could ultimately cause a great deal of confusion as well as undermine the authority of the School Board,” Larson said.

She argues such an amendment would infringe upon the board’s duties by its very nature “because I don’t think you can come up with a plan without prioritizing needs.”

It’s hard not to get the sense — from the mayor’s Compact process and this proposed charter amendment — that we are witnessing the declining significance of the School Board.

Goldman brushes aside those concerns.

“It’s an advisory referendum,” he said. “OK: produce! That’s all it does. It’s not a hammer. ... You say you want a plan, the public wants a plan.”

“You can’t operate on the theory that I won’t solve anything until I can solve everything. This is what the public can do.”

But for me, the most telling part of the petition is that a fully funded plan for school modernization “cannot be based on the passage of new or increased taxes for that purpose.”

Nothing — including a tax hike — should be off the table if this is a serious effort. Anything else is too political and invites cynicism.

“The way it’s being sold is, ‘Do you want to improve Richmond Public Schools with no new taxes?’ Of course you do,” Larson said.

Such a change as written won’t provide a tangible result unless the levers in the voting booth are attached to slot machines. Improving the school buildings hinges on one central question: Where’s the money coming from?

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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