Top of the ninth for the Mayor and things are not looking great. His no good, very bad losing streak started a few weeks before the month began in late April when the Wing Nut Collective posted an odd item regarding Mayor Jones’ real estate taxes. According to the City of Richmond’s Property Search and Tax Assessment data, the assessed value of the land that Dwight Jones’ house sits on has dropped $64,000 in the past year. No big deal, only all of his neighbors’ land increased in value–which makes you wonder. A city ‘revaluation’ was called in. That’s just a little awkward note to preface the streak to be, but it gives you the general flavor.
Meanwhile, last Monday, April 28th, Open High students Levi Bane along with Aaron Greene, Isabella Arias, Quante Barnes and Gillian Hogg organized a walkout of the student body over the lousy condition of Richmond Public Schools. Roughly 200 students altogether ended up leaving their classroom as part of a “Walk Out” protest—most of them from Open High, the remainder from Thomas Jefferson , John Marshall, Community, Albert Hill, Lucille Brown and Maggie Walker . They headed straight to City Hall to talk with Mayor Jones. The structural problems for the schools—covered nicely in this Style Weekly article – include tar diluted water oozing in “foul-smelling drops” into classrooms and hallways in Thompson Middle School, and black water-soaked ceiling tiles dropping from the ceiling. School Board Vice Chairman Kristen Larson said the environment there made her “want to throw up.” At Carver Elementary School, the skeletal remains of dead rodents crunched underfoot. Worse was Armstrong High where there were so many live rats that “snakes have become a problem as well.” It’s the kind of thing no one should have to deal with, much less high school students.
So the Open High folks organized a walkout last Monday in protest. The walkout is strikingly similar to a boycott organized nearly half a century earlier by Barbara Johns, when she took it upon herself to publicize the loathsome conditions in Prince Edward County public schools. Her actions eventually led to the Supreme Court decision overturning the specious doctrine of separate but equal. As a consequence, integration was enforced across the country—something white Virginians in particular opposed organizing themselves behind the banner of Massive Resistance. This ultimately led to white flight, which subsequently turned the screw on budgets for the Richmond Public School system. Why? Because when integration threatened, the General Assembly removed the city’s ability to annex surrounding communities, stifling its tax base and piling on a mountain of debt. Henrico and Chesterfield counties were left to enjoy the region’s economic growth alone. Richmond public schools were left to starve.
Underneath this movement, of course, lies the logic of gentrification. Something you would think Mayor Jones would be hesitant to embrace, but you would be wrong.
By way of background, a little over two weeks ago, Mayor Jones made the mistake of echoing Louis Salomonsky in a Sunday Richmond Time-Dispatch article. In an interview with Open Source (WRIR.org), Salomonsky openly lamented the city’s “ghetto of people making $30k-50k a year”, suggesting it’s the reason the city keeps asking developers for more and more luxury condos. Salomonsky, it should be noted, has done time in federal prison for conspiracy to commit extortion for bribing a City Council member and also, notably, has a stake in the Mayor’s baseball in the bottom plan. Politically tone-deaf, the Mayor essentially seconded Salomonsky’s opinion arguing that minorities moving to the counties because of a “declining school system” would finally bring rich, childless empty-nesters into the city. Or, put another way, get rid of couples interested in quality schools for their children. Too late, the Mayor realized that political acuity wasn’t his strong point, but he did manage to get the newspaper to pull his quote from their website—though it’s still available in the printed edition.
So it’s within this context that Mayor Jones deigned to meet with the boycotting Open High students; a PR moved that failed. That Monday afternoon (April 28th), Mayor Jones made his intentions clear: new schools are the way forward, maintenance of existing facilities not so much. He insisted that investments needed to be made in revenue generating schemes rather than existing schools: baseball stadiums, Redskin training camps, things like that. Only, the actual revenue generation part of such schemes falls abysmally short. As an example, the Redskins training camp has turned into a net loss for the city. In fact, activist and former School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf had to prod City Council to collect the $100,000 owed to them from Bon Secours for the leasing of the property—funds that were to be paid directly to the Richmond Public School system. By February of this year, Richmond School Board member Kim Gray said “We have yet to see a dime.” That eventually turned around, but the city tax revenue still falls far short. The promised boon to local business is pretty much a mirage. Retail sales in Richmond during August, the month in which the bulk of the Redskins training camp was held, declined 6.8 percent compared with the same month last year. Whoops. According to Style Weekly, “during the training camp, many restaurant owners complained that the camp had done little to increase sales, with only a nearby McDonald’s reporting a significant increase in customers.”
So Mickey D’s gets a leg up, but that doesn’t really translate into the 3.8 million dollar revenue shortfall that the mayor slashed from the school board request for fiscal year 2015. Last Monday, in face of the Open High protests, City Council finally promised to restore that amount. But even that promise had a hidden caveat. As structured in the budget, the money will not go toward maintenance needs, but rather towards operation funding, which covers day-to-day expenses. Rats, snakes and black water dripping from the ceiling will remain the foreseeable norm. The Mayor tried to cheer the students by suggesting that his other big idea, the Baseball Stadium in the Bottom, could help close the revenue gap. Unfortunately said stadium plan would require capital investments from the city of 76.5 million over the course of thirty years. And the revenue projections are shaky at best. Not to mention, the chosen location would bury historical slave sites that Preservation Virginia decided to list as one of the top endangered historical sites in the country – the day after the students’ walkout: Tuesday, April 29th. Ouch. But really, the students weren’t buying the happy talk, either way.
Said Levi Bane, “The children of our city are this city’s future and it is high time that they be treated as such. A stadium which will hopefully provide more money in the future is not what our money should be spent on or invested in. Richmond Public Schools have thousands of children to invest in and thousands of children who, if provided for properly, will benefit the city of Richmond much more than a baseball stadium could ever hope to do.” The students are right, of course. But that was only the beginning of Mayor Jones’ losing streak.
Last Thursday, May 1st, the other shoe dropped. What would be excellent news for the citizens of Richmond, was plain old bad news for the Mayor. Developers with The Rebkee Co. offered to fund the building of the Stadium privately on the Boulevard. All of it. No public funds involved. Under the broad outlines of the proposal, an 8,000-plus capacity stadium would be built entirely with private money on about 10 acres of Boulevard land. The first phase would involve a small amount of residential, retail and restaurant development. The developers also would have the option of building out the rest of the 60-acre Boulevard area. Now that’s a sweet deal. But the Mayor didn’t like it. Make your plans public, he said. After he kept his plans for a stadium in the dark for well over a year. Never mind that! Now we must have transparency in our projections! The Mayor’s good buddy at Venture Richmond, Jack Berry, sent out a nasty letter to Venture Richmond’s board where the Mayor presides as President: “Beware when a Chesterfield politician (Mr. Gecker) and a suburban strip shopping center developer from Midlothian (Rebkee) tell you they know what is best for your city,” Berry wrote. “Does Gecker’s involvement and approach strike you as a conflict of interest, and disrespectful of city leadership, even offensive?” Apparently, Jack Berry flunked out of charm school.
But there was worse news for the Mayor. That Thursday night, in light of the proposal, City Council voted 5-4 to remove $12.6 million of the $13.6 million that Jones had budgeted for infrastructure improvements needed for the publicly financed Shockoe stadium plan. The council kept $1 million for any infrastructure work necessary for the slave heritage site, “seeking to decouple the museum from the stadium proposal.”
In all, the council reallocated $3.25 million for school maintenance, $3 million for the riverfront plan, $4.5 million for projects in council members’ districts such as sidewalk repairs, and $1.5 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Jones would have none of it. He threatened to veto the move and said the council’s action last week sent the “wrong message” to the General Assembly, “The business community has said that they would help us raise a certain amount of money, but they’re not going to do it if it’s not going to be a part of the complete package,” Jones said. But it’s not like you can take his word to the bank. As Paul Goldman, former state Democratic Party chairman noted, “… the politicians have not leveled with anybody.”
Yes, that would seem to be the case.
The losing streak continued this week when Rebkee Co. responded to Venture Richmond and the Mayor’s nasty gram: “The mayor has made it abundantly clear that he does not need or want an alternative in the event the land acquisition and developer contracts for the Shockoe Bottom project do not materialize… While we don’t agree this is in the city’s best interest, we respect that decision. We also recognize that no plan can go forward without the support of those in control of the city. A transaction of this scale is difficult with parties who share the same goals; it is impossible between those that do not.”
So the alternative is scuttled, yes? Well, no. Not exactly. The Mayor equivocated. Shortly after his stern veto threat and Venture Richmond’s ill-timed letter, the Mayor tried to sound reasonable. Here’s what Jones had to say as of Tuesday, May 5th in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “…. [the] administration is still open to receiving more information from the development team behind the recently floated proposal for a privately financed baseball stadium on North Boulevard.”
So maybe it’s okay, after all? That talk about being disrespectful of City leadership? Conflict of interest? Nothing to worry about! Jack Berry had a case of the bowels. And so it goes. The Mayor may be looking for a lifeline, or he may just be saving face. The next few weeks will show how his losing streak shakes out.
Meanwhile, at the School Board meeting at City Hall this week, Open High students were at it again.
Kevin Tyler: “The buildings are still in disrepair…Today a tile fell from the ceiling and almost hit a student in the head.” He said that when they had talked with the Mayor, he told the students they needed to speak with their School Board to make their needs known. Of course, weeks after an article about dead rats, live snakes and ceilings oozing with black goo you’d think the school board would have figured it out. But the Mayor likes this dance because after the students go to the school board, the school board gets to come back to City Council to ask for the funds the Mayor insists are earmarked for things like his Baseball Stadium in the Bottom. Which may or may not be funded any longer, depending on how willing the Mayor is to follow through on his veto threat. Is that clear, everyone?
Despite the bureaucratic maze, the students have remained persistent. “So here we are,” said Tyler, “asking the School Board to make our needs known.”
In a voice tight with frustration, Sydney Pollard asked, “How do we improve the conditions of our schools? How do we make them safe schools?…’Safe schools’…why is that a question we even need to ask?”
And finally, Isabella Arias insisted that everyone was responsible for the current impasse, but she ended on a cautiously optimistic note, “If government officials are able to work together then there is hope for Richmond public schools,” which may be less cause for confidence than she thinks.
~Jack R. Johnson