Playing the Numb3rs ... ?

Ironically, as some members of Richmond City Council and the Richmond School Board  threw  hard-ball questions last week at city officials concerning Mayor Dwight C. Jones' plan to demolish Overby-Sheppard Elementary School and replace it with a brand-new $21.5 million elementary school as part of the Dove Court rehabilitation project,  RPS officials learned that Overby-Sheppard is in immediate need of replacing two roof-top air conditioning units  (RTUs).  

Early estimates of cost to replace them is $300,000.  Significantly, these RTUs will be good for about 20 years, but some school officials worry that they are not easily transferrable to other locations should the school be demolished.  Add to School Board worries, the fact that Mayor Jones has recommended that RPS receives only $500,000 for maintenance and repair of 27 other school buildings.   After purchasing the replacement units, RPS School Board members and administration will have only $200,000 left for the upkeep and repair of other RPS buildings. 

School Board members say they haven’t been consulted on the new school and contend  that they -- not Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ administration -- should determine the city’s educational needs.

Given that seven of the nine members of the School Board are new this year, it is little wonder that they have been surprised by the Mayor's efforts to work with Richmond Rehabilitative Housing Authority (RRHA) to circumvent the authority and the Constitutionally vested duties enumerated in The Virginia Code (see sidebar on far right side of this page). 

Ostensibly to avoid Virginia open meeting law, Jones administration officials have called each of the nine members into individual meetings -- and some with two board members present -- meetings to discuss the project with leaders from the city and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, however there has been no city-wide public meeting on the proposed school.

Curiously, prior to the seating of the current School Board, RPS Supt. Yvonne Brandon and former chair of the School Board Chandra Smith were indeed included in planning sessions and trips to other locations to see how a "new" school can help anchor efforts to disperse concentrated poverty and replace the units with mixed-income housing.  Click HERE to see a RRHA video presentation about the project and HERE to see an August 2012 news release from RRHA that provides detailed background information on the history of the project and its financing. 

RPS administration officials and former school board members have offered no response to repeated questions about why the possibility of partnering with Jones and RRHA was never brought to the full board for discussion, much less a vote on whether  a new school is needed in Southern Barton Heights.

Further, given that meeting notes and transcripts of planning sessions and community meetings show that some School Board members and RPS officials knew of this possibility as far back as 2009, but they did not share this information with all their colleagues.  
It is especially galling and exasperating that knowing this, the RPS administration and a majority of members of the 2008-2012 School Board nonetheless continued to spend money earmarked for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations at Overby- Sheppard. 

“Nobody’s opposed to the school itself. I think the vision for redoing that housing community is a good one,” [....] “nobody can tell us what that money’s for,” Jonathan T. Baliles, 1st District CC member, was quoted in Zach Reid's story for the Richmond Times Dispatch. 

Indeed.  After listening to Jones preach that austerity measures require that the city public schools receive only $500,000 for repair and maintenence of 27 other school facilities, it is easy to understand why School Board members felt blind-sided when they learned that Jones is now asking that City Council approve $400,000 in next year’s Capital Improvement Program for planning and design of the school and $500,000 in the general fund for a line item titled “Dove Street infrastructure and school.”

Should the School Board and Mayor Jones reach an impasse on this question, odds are the School Board would win.  The School Board has a Constitutionally vested authority spelled out in the Virginia Code (see sidebar on far right of this page).  

Moreover, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (nominated by Ronald Reagan on January 30, 1984) noted in a 2007 decision Bacon v. City of Richmond that  "[...] under Virginia law, the City of Richmond is vested with bare legal title and thus the owner of school buildings in name only.   Equitable title to school property rests in the hands of the School Board.   It is the School Board that is “vested with the exclusive control of all school property ․ both real and personal.”  Sch. Bd. of Chesterfield County, 28 S.E.2d at 704;  see also Va.Code Ann. § 22.1-125. This is true even where legal “title to such property is vested ․ in ․ a city.”  Va.Code Ann. § 22.1-125.B. Likewise, the School Board is the legal entity charged with the care, management, and control of school property.  Id. § 22.1-79(3)."

During a meeting Monday on proposed council budget amendments, the council was told the $500,000 was intended for debt service on the school project. 

Baliles was among the council members who questioned why the city was setting aside money to pay debt when a plan to borrow the money had yet to be presented. “Is there a plan?” Baliles said in an interview with the RT-D's Reid: “You can’t pay debt service on bonds you haven’t issued.”

Reid's report in the RT-D also noted that  last year, in a presentation to the council, the city administration said the new school would be paid for by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and that the city would cover the debt service on the project, which was estimated at $2 million per year for 25 years. This year, however, those plans seem to have shifted.

According to the proposed Capital Improvement Program for fiscal 2014-18, city appropriations of $2.6 million in 2015 and $18.3 million in 2016 are included for the new Overby-Sheppard elementary school.  Chief Administrative Officer Byron C. Marshall said how the proposed school will be financed has yet to be determined.

In that case, Baliles, who formerly worked in the city’s department of planning and development, questioned the $400,000 appropriation for planning and design of the school.  “If we’re paying that money to amend plans we already own, we’re getting ripped off,” he said.