An Open Letter to Sen. Louise Lucas About Funding New Richmond Schools

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth

Editor’s note: Paul Goldman, a Richmond attorney and former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, asked us to publish the letter below, which he sent last week to state Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, a fellow Democrat who serves as president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate. As of today, Sen. Lucas has not responded.

TO: State Senator Louise Lucas

RE: Why Richmond citizens, long concerned about the decrepit, shameful condition of the school facilities serving the city’s overwhelming black and brown public-school students, deserve to be allowed to have a Second Casino Referendum in 2023 as promised them by last year’s budget deal.

Dear Louise,

I write today not merely because you are the Pro Tempore of the State Senate. Not merely because you are the key to any new Senate action on the Casino issue. But I write today because you and I have long fought hard, against great odds, to remedy the many injustices suffered by the poor children of Virginia from the legacy of segregation. Especially the Black and Brown kids in cities like Portsmouth and Richmond.

We first met during the Wilder years, indeed as State Democratic Party Chair, I was the only top Democratic ally Gov. Wilder initially had when he first called for the creation party of the Senate seat which led to your election in 1991. I helped draft your district back then. Senate Democrats initially wanted only two majority minority districts. Governor Wilder said he wanted five. He asked me whether this is what the law required. I said yes. He said I would take a lot of heat as Party Chair for bucking the Democratic Establishment, who would say I was helping to elect Republicans by backing five minority majority districts. That certain top Democratic senators would lose due to less favorable district lines. A year later, key Party leaders, who didn’t much like Wilder and I for ending the white supremacy rule in Democratic Party circles, tried to get me fired. They failed. The state has benefitted greatly from Wilder’s insistence on giving a fair chance.

But there is something more currently germane to remember about what happened back then: 38 years ago, lieutenant governor hopeful Doug Wilder and I were on a campaign trip in a rural area near Richmond. I was still basically a Northern boy. So Doug always tried to help me understand the state’s history. We had occasion to visit the local courthouse. I believe it was the old courthouse in Amelia County. Doug tried cases there as a rookie lawyer. He showed me the courtroom. As we were leaving, I said I had never before seen a courtroom with balcony seating. In my experience up North, courtrooms were only one floor, where all spectators, participants and of course the judge sat. Doug smiled. “That’s where Black folks were required to sit during segregation” the future Lieutenant Governor and Governor explained. I remember standing there, staring at the balcony. Needless to say, it made an impression lasting all these years later.

That is the moment I understood the reason his first major bill as a State Senator had been a compulsory Education law. Education, said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is the one great achievable potential equalizer. It explains the reason the odious Byrd Machine refused to obey the Brown v Board of Education decisions in 1954 and 1955 — even though Virginia as one of the losing defendants had a direct obligation to obey. This is the reason the Constitution of Virginia doesn’t guarantee the right to equal educational opportunities for all children, a major reason for the lagging condition of Virginia education today. The last segregation Governor and his pals put a poison pill in Article 8 of the state Constitution. Wilder fought it, as did another mentor of mine, the legendary Henry Howell. Today, far too many elected officials still don’t want to give poor black and brown children, indeed rural white kids too, an equal chance. They know Dr. King is right. As he said, these powerful elected officials know education is the great equalizer and this “is why they don’t want us to get it.” Dr. King said so many incredibly brilliant things. But I consider this among his greatest insights.

Louise, I know you are aware of this poison bill because you and former Richmond State Senator Jen McClellan tried to remove this very poison pill from the Constitution of Virginia. Professor Mark Rozell and I had previously explained the constitutional flaw in a Virginian Pilot column. I later helped Senator Bill Stanley craft an amendment to Article 8 to finally give our kids equal educational justice. He introduced the legislation. Jen McClellan knew about it from her being on the Senate Local Government Committee when Stanley had been the Chair. Jen amended it in Committee. The 2021 Constitutional Amendment passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote.

But amazingly enough, this long overdue constitutional amendment legislation, championed by every progressive civil rights leader in the state’s history, got killed by the votes of Northern Virginia liberal Democrats. All the Republicans voted for it! NOVA has the most modern public-school facilities in the state. But you know the condition of so many public schools in Tidewater, just as Jen and I know the decrepit state of these facilities in Richmond.

All of which then got me thinking about how to get passed this educational logjam. As those who follow state politics know, Tim Kaine and I, along with Jen and then Mayor Doug Wilder, have been championing this issue on many fronts including the school modernization legislation passed by the House of Representatives last year sponsored by Philly Congressman Dwight Evans. It would be the greatest reform to the financing of educational building construction since the Morrill Act of 1862 championed by President Abraham Lincoln.

I first raised the possibility of linkage between Casinos and funding for school modernization in Richmond last year. In 2005, at the encouragement of then Mayor Wilder and Governor-elect Kaine, I proposed the first detailed, comprehensive approach to fully funding the modernization of all Richmond’s public school facilities. Prior to this, the white and black politicians were always fighting over which community should get a new school first. That is so stupid. They still do it! Truth is, Richmond, when you take the whole system as a whole, had the oldest, most rundown, and educationally obsolete facilities in the entire Commonwealth. Every kid was hurt. This remains sadly too true today. My plan passed the City Council but fell victim to that quagmire of petty political bickering, a systemic problem in Richmond. The politicians love it. But those of us who champion true educational reform are exasperated to no end.

But I don’t give up easy. In 2017, the Richmond Crusade for Voters and I led a citywide referendum on the school modernization issue. Mayor Stoney, the City Council, most of the business leaders, and the usual suspects opposed us. Yet 85% of the voters backed the Referendum’s call to modernize all the school buildings. You voted for my proposed city charter change too. As did every single legislator representing Richmond.

Now comes 2023. There is still no legally binding plan, heck any true plan, on a given timetable, to fully fund and thus make sure every child in RVA will have a modern school facility capable of teaching a 21st century education. Yet the combined city budget is 200% to 300% greater than when Wilder took over as mayor. The experts at Virginia Tech told Jen and me the hard truth one afternoon in Blacksburg years ago: to wit, students going to decrepit, dilapidated, public school facilities have no chance to get the 21st century education needed to be all they can be. NO CHANCE. It is just not right. Indeed, it is immoral.

So like I say, I got to thinking in 2022 about casinos and the 1955 Brown v Board of Education ruling which discussed decrepit school facilities attended by minority kids. I led the VOTE NO Campaign that defeated the 2021 Casino Referendum put on the ballot by Mayor Stoney. There were numerous reasons for my opposition to the deal he and City Council cut with their choice for a casino operator. Suffice to say I thought it was good for the politicians, the vendor, but not the people. City leaders refused to say what they would do with the money. I know Richmond. That meant the Mayor and Council would use it for the usual patronage for their friends and the projects favored by the powerful special interests, not those needed by the people most in need. The public agreed with me, albeit voting NO by a slim 51 to 49 majority.

Current state law gives Richmond the right to a second Casino Referendum. I support this right to vote. Fairness and history say the city should get this vote for no other reason than to at least consider the Casino/School modernization linkage if the Mayor and City Council would finally do the right thing. I am not a fan of casinos as a general matter. But I am far less a fan of the immorality of city leaders failing to fulfill the legal obligations required of Richmond nearly 70 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bottom line: At some point, Richmond, as a community, must either demand its leaders keep the commitment to these children, or decide these kids are simply not important enough to be given equal educational opportunities. The time is now.

I know the people of Richmond. They want to help these kids. They want to do the right thing. Richmond has so much potential. But the current Mayor and current Council, the last Mayor, and the last Council, simply refuse to do the right thing.

Frankly, this baffles me.

So, Louise, I write because I believe the people of Richmond, come November, should have the right to choose. To say once and for all whether we agree with the Supreme Court, with Dr. King, or we do not.

The irony is the city has the money needed to commit to fully funded plan to fix modernize all the public schools on an agreed upon timetable. All the communities would be treated equally in that regard, all children also.

To repeat: We have the money. We don’t need the casino revenue to do it. I showed this several times over the last near 20 years. Mayor Wilder and Council President Bill Pantele were willing to do it. But since then, nada. It is so unfair to the kids.

So yes: I can’t guarantee a Second Casino Referendum will itself guarantee all the revenue will go to finally keeping this broken 70-year-old promise. I can’t guarantee the bidding process required by the Constitution of Virginia will be followed. But it will force a discussion.

And yes, maybe those who don’t want a casino will get the Mayor and City Council to finally fund the school modernization Richmond needs. Then I suppose the casino will be voted down again. That is for the people to decide.

Leadership is about solving problems. We have a broken 70-year-old promise to the most needy and vulnerable kids in Richmond. We need to keep that promise. Leaders understand solutions are not always perfect. One has to choose between competing interests.

Let me be blunt: We have, in effect, two school systems once again. The Brown cases were supposed to stop such a duality. But they have not. We have in RVA a public school system with crumbling facilities. This public system serves overwhelmingly children of color. From families with modest incomes.

We also have a private school system with modern facilities. This system serves overwhelmingly children from financially successful families. But the way to fix the public system is not to attack the successful private school system. Success is a good thing in educational. Rather, we must improve our public schools.

The citizens of Richmond alone should have the right to choose. The General Assembly shouldn’t deny us the vote currently guaranteed by state law.

Your friend,

Paul Goldman