Richmond’s Huge and Hidden Problem

The Seahawk's Wilson

The Seahawk’s Wilson

 By Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of image-building on this blog site in favor of what is perceived to be a “new” Richmond.

In this view, the former Capital of the Confederacy famous for its gentile white elite and, unfortunately, race politics, is being transformed to a major draw for talented young people and active retirees with plenty of diversity. Some evidence bears this out, such as the wealth of arts and culture and increasing upscale apartment rentals in the city.

The image is being pushed along by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones who wants to anchor his downtown drive by placing a controversial baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. There is plenty of angst about his idea given that the city has other, more pressing concerns. They include its 26 percent poverty rate and the fact that the mostly white suburban counties seem to be moving farther from the Richmond sphere of influence.

There’s yet another big and unaddressed problem that may spell the ultimate fate of the city. Its school system is decrepit, as two recent stories in Style Weekly to which I contribute, point out.

One is a deeply reported cover story this week by Tom Nash that takes readers on a horrifying tour of several Richmond schools. Thompson Middle School has ceiling that ooze gunk. Diluted tar falls in classrooms. Fairfield Court Elementary needs a new roof. A tile fell on a student but the fix is $90,000 or one fifth of the district’s school budget for the year. Tom reveals more problems at Carver Elementary and Armstrong High, among others.

Most of Richmond’s school buildings are more than 60 years old. Dana Bedden, the system’s new superintendent, says school buildings are the worst he’s ever seen and that includes a stint in the District of Columbia. Reports say that $26 million is needed just this year to make a corrective dent in the problem.

Another Style story of note is an opinion piece by Carol A.O. Wolf, a former journalist and school board member. It was published in February, just after the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. The star was Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson who grew up in Richmond.

Wilson’s dad placed him at Collegiate, a highly regarded private school in the West End. The Sporting News reported that when Wilson was a ninth grader at Collegiate, Richmond public schools started angling to recruit him to play ball for them. Dad said no. According to him, “I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”

So much for Richmond’s public schools. It’s really too bad, as well, that the public school system is so neglected and that the mayor and other opinion makers are ignoring huge municipal problems in favor of top-down development like the new baseball stadium of questionable value.

10 Responses to Richmond’s Huge and Hidden Problem

  1. Oh yeah, moving to elected school boards without giving them control over their own financial destiny — that was a very bright move on Virginia’s part a couple of decades ago. The condition of the city schools is just criminal, but with the thriving network of private schools for the middle and upper classes of all races, or their ability to move to the ‘burbs, there is no political will for a real fix. Heaven knows the city has plenty of tax money. Where do it go instead of basic annual maintenance?

  2. ” So much for Richmond’s public schools. It’s really too bad, as well, that the public school system is so neglected and that the mayor and other opinion makers are ignoring huge municipal problems in favor of top-down development like the new baseball stadium of questionable value.”

    even if the stadium deal was solid gold – the chronic neglect of the school system is inexplicable to me … if there is tax money involved.

    the schools are everything.

    First, they are vital to helping to break the cycle of poverty.. poorly-educated parents on the economic margins – their kids – their only hope is a better education.

    Second, the blighted sections and their Effect on nearby less blighted combined properties combined with the neglected schools portend little hope for the future.

    can never understand why this not a priority in cities like Richmond.

    I’m sure it’s a problem…

  3. You can’t revitalize a city without good schools – agreed. Chattanooga’s running into the same problem.

  4. I agree when you say that the ballpark stadium is a questionable priority. But I’d like to get a clearer idea of what you mean when you say, “The public school system is so neglected.” (I’m not being argumentative here.)

    Clearly, there are horrendous maintenance issues in city schools. There are maintenance issues in Henrico and Chesterfield schools as well. Both school systems want to invest more money in updating some of the older buildings, some of which go back 60 years or more. But you don’t hear the same kind of horror stories for county schools. (Maybe they exist but you don’t hear them.)

    Do city and county schools have different philosophies to maintenance? Understanding than an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, are county systems more aggressive about dealing with maintenance issues? I don’t know the answers. I’m just asking questions.

  5. Jim,
    I don’t know the answers to your questions but one thing is certain. There is a reason why both Henrico and Chesterfield have larger populations than Richmond. It could be that Richmonders are moving out and when outsiders move here, they choose not to live in Richmond because of the schools.

    When I returned to the Richmond area in a corporate move in 2000 with children, I was advised my some local top executives who shall go nameless that I should not reside in Richmond because the schools were so horrible.

    This was 14 years ago.

  6. When I graduated from TJ in 1964 there were about 60,000 attending RPS ,
    today there are around 20,000 ,but there are the same number of buildings . There needs to be a careful evaluation of how many school buildings the city really needs.

  7. The perception is that urban schools are neglected both physically/structurally and operationally… and people who can, almost automatically seek out suburban schools and even within them – the schools they visit in terms of how they look and how their scores look.

    I’m surprised that Jim B has not blamed all of this on those disgusting teachers unions!

  8. Russell Wilson’s Dad was a man after my own heart. What a shame that he passed away at such a young age.

  9. What I’ve noticed, over the years, is that the emphasis in Richmond is on big solutions – big public work projects, things that people claim will change the whole game, projects that they claim will greatly increase the tax base.

    Over and over again, what seems to get emphasized, by city decision-makers, are top down solutions. They are big projects that are likely to benefit whoever gets the contracts for them, typically the city has lots of skin in the game and takes a lot of the risk, and they tend to fail to accomplish what they claimed.

    We talk about art in the city, and the emphasis is on a big performing arts complex. We have an excellent arts school, but if there are city initiatives emphasizing local arts and local artists, getting their work out before the public, festivals and such – well if they exist, they aren’t getting press. Do you think young creatives are more interested in going to the opera, or going to festivals of local arts, local theater groups, weekly or monthly arts in the park, plays in the park? Why aren’t we doing more of the latter?

    We talk about revitalizing the tax base. We could have projects that help people incorporate small businesses, study and change obstacles to business creation in the city, partner with VCU on student entrepreneurship, start business incubators, encourage people starting businesses later in life (a huge trend – the highest % of new business creation right now is from people 50-64.) Small things to help people get started could have big results.

    Nope. We don’t make it easy to succeed from the bottom up. We have huge canned projects from the top down.

    The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

    Good schools and the well educated kids they produce also give value from the bottom up.

    Grasping at shiny objects is not a development strategy.

    When I see the city spending another 50 million for local schools, or for local arts, or to help local small businesses, then I’ll think Richmond is serious about becoming a great city.

  10. good comments! and don’t forget that job-killing, poverty-inducing exclusionary zoning that Jim B keeps warning about – also!

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