Thursday, March 27, 2008

Raise the Drawbridge, I’m Already Inside

Last year I wrote a particularly sarcastic and nasty piece about Hanover County’s attitude toward the less affluent. It went pretty well unnoticed and that is good. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Besides, since I live in the City of Richmond, how can I possibly understand the attitudes of my neighbors across the Chickahominy River?

My thoughts turned again to Hanover County as I read “
Hanover debating Habitat plan” in today’s Times-Dispatch. According to TD reporter Reed Williams the county Board of Supervisors voted to return to the Planning Commission for further consideration a Habitat for Humanity plan to build in the county. This plan had been approved by the Planning Commission last month, but that was before Hanover residents learned of the proposed development.

Hanover Habitat for Humanity is an “ecumenical nonprofit Christian organization committed to eliminating substandard housing through the rehabilitation and building of simple, decent homes for those in need in Hanover County.” Habitat, which has already built or rebuilt 32 homes in Hanover County, seeks to break “the cycle of poverty by offering an opportunity for families to work for a new home.” Families are chosen by Habitat and must invest 350 hours of their own labor in building their home. Habitat arranges for zero-interest mortgages, which allow families to quickly establish equity in their homes.

Residents of the Cheroy Woods and Brown Grove communities, in the area where Habitat is planning to develop, object to the plan for three reasons. First, they say, the concentration of affordable housing in the area will lead to an increase in crime. Second, the Habitat houses would lower the property values of nearby properties. Third, lower income families moving into the area would “bring more foot traffic” to Ashcake Road, which is too narrow to accommodate them.

Now, where do you think my neighbors in Hanover County got the idea that lower income families living in a neighborhood will lead to a higher rate of crime? Can it be from Hanover Sheriff V. Stuart Cook who told the Hanover supervisors that they should heed resident’s concerns about the proposed development? Sheriff Cook told TD reporter Williams that he has seen concentrations of low-income homes create a breeding ground for crime and that he doesn’t want that in Hanover. I appreciate Cook’s desire to keep crime under control in his county, but isn’t his attitude creating stereotypes about people who live in affordable housing. And, dear reader, isn’t it stereotypes and the fears they produce what this is all about?

The residents of Cheroy Woods and Brown Grove oppose the Habitat development proposal because they are afraid that lower income families somehow produce crime. They are also afraid that lower income families will allow their homes to run down thus lowering the market value of other homes in the neighborhood. These fears are based on stereotypes. (I won’t talk about Ashcake Road because I’ve never seen it, but isn’t the assumption that lower-income families will bring more foot traffic to an area also based on stereotype)? Do the people up in Hanover really believe that all poorer people are criminals? Do they really believe that poorer people will have so little pride in their property that they will let it deteriorate?

The problem, friends, is that we’re dealing here with fear. And, as I hinted earlier in the week talking about the fear of some parents to send their kids to Richmond Public Schools, fear is not a rational feeling. It comes from the most primitive parts of our brain. I’m not sure how you dispel the fear other than showing that it is not rational. In the case of Hanover County that would be done by approving the Habitat development and then letting the present residents realize that their fears were unfounded. However, I don’t really believe that’s going to happen. Leaders of the anti-Habitat residents have made it clear that they will come out in large numbers to make sure that the Planning Commission doesn’t make the same mistake again.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

You Gotta Be Kidding!

According to Style Weekly’s Chris Dovi, the litigation between the City Council and Mayor Wilder over whether the mayor may disregard ordinances enacted by council and may fire council employees has cost us taxpayers $883,445.53 in legal fees, so far.

Take a few seconds to let that sink in. . . . . .

Our elected leaders, who are currently arguing over whether the city government can afford to grant us a one or two cent decrease in real estate rates, are perfectly willing to squander our money on this ridiculous litigation. Are these the people we have elected to run our fair city? Have they no concern for our money?

Undoubtedly, they will be coming to us in a few months asking us to reelect them, or elect them to a higher office, arguing that they have done a wonderful job husbanding our funds. Give me a break!

A Watchdog with Teeth

Monday, in a press release, mayoral candidate Paul Goldman urged moving the City Auditor’s functions to the office of City Treasurer where it would be immune from political pressures. In Mr. Goldman’s words,

[W]e need a truly independent auditor, someone who never has to worry about whether he or she might lose their job due to pressure from the politicians on City Council or in City Hall on account of any audit project.
Therefore, I propose that the City Treasurer be given the city auditor function, thus transferring that legal responsibility to an independently elected official accountable to the people.

Although I agree with Mr. Goldman that the auditing function should not be subject to political pressure, I do not think that the City Treasurer, whose primary job is to assure the collection of state taxes and their transfer to the Commonwealth, is the right official to oversee the auditing function.

But wait, Maven, why do we need an auditor at all. Isn’t it all just bean-counting?

Dear reader, I and thousands of other residents of River City pay beaucoup bucks in taxes to support our government. We have a right to expect that our elected and appointed officials will use that money lawfully and efficiently. As explained in the Government Auditing Standards, issued by the Comptroller General of the United States:

· Public officials and others entrusted with handling public resources … are responsible for applying those resources efficiently, economically, and effectively to achieve the purposes for which the resources were furnished. This responsibility applies to all resources, whether entrusted to public officials or others by their own constituencies or by other levels of government.
· Public officials and others entrusted with public resources are responsible for complying with applicable laws and regulations. That responsibility encompasses identifying the requirements with which the entity and the official must comply and implementing systems designed to achieve that compliance.
· Public officials and others entrusted with public resources are responsible for establishing and maintaining effective controls to ensure that appropriate goals and objectives are met; resources are safeguarded; laws and regulations are followed; and reliable data are obtained, maintained, and fairly disclosed.
· Public officials and others entrusted with public resources are accountable both to the public and to other levels and branches of government for the resources provided to carry out government programs and services.

Auditing is the public function that assures that all these responsibilities are being fulfilled. By reviewing and reporting on government operations, the public auditor enables taxpayers to feel confident that their tax money is being properly spent.

Richmond’s City Auditor is appointed by the City Council under section 4.18 of the City Charter and may be removed by the council under section 4.14 of the charter “for any lawful reason or no reason.” Mayor Wilder has repeatedly used this fact to charge that the auditing function is politically motivated. The mayor has objected to the City Auditor, Umesh V. Dalal, auditing the executive offices of Richmond government rather than Richmond Public Schools, where Mr. Wilder “knows” that all the fraud, waste and corruption are hiding. In a blistering letter last summer, Mayor Doug attacked Mr. Dalal for his “effrontery” in demanding access to the records of Deputy Chief Administrator Harry Black. Mr. Dalal defended his independence by saying, "Neither the mayor nor the council tells me what to do. [The mayor] is the one insisting that I be independent of the council. That means I have to be independent, period."

The City Council changed things a bit this week by assigning inspector general functions to the City Auditor. Ordinance 2007-285-2008-67. The inspector general functions are defined in the ordinance as:

1- To audit, inspect, evaluate and investigate the activities, records and individuals affiliated with contracts and procurements undertaken by the City and any other official act or function of the City.
2- To conduct criminal, civil and administrative investigations relating to the municipal affairs of the City.
3- To engage in preventive activities, including, but not limited to, (i) the review of legislation, (ii) the review of rules, regulations, policies, procedures and transactions, and (iii) training and education.
4- To refer matters for further civil, criminal and administrative action to appropriate administrative and prosecutorial agencies.
5- To conduct joint investigations and projects with other oversight or law enforcement agencies.
6. To issue public reports.

The ordinance also creates the Inspector General Oversight Board for the purpose of monitoring and overseeing the inspector general functions of the City Auditor. In addition to reporting on the activities of the City Auditor, the board will have a role in the possible removal of the auditor from office. The ordinance provides:

(2) Prior to any removal of the City Auditor, the Council shall forward a copy of the resolution introduced to effectuate the removal of the City Auditor along with a written statement of the reasons for the removal to the Board for review and recommendation.
(3)The Board shall review the resolution and the reasons given for the removal and shall hold a public hearing on the matter before voting on a recommendation to remove or not remove the City Auditor.

This purpose of this procedure is described as establishing and maintaining the independence of the inspector general function. However, the ordinance does not change the fact that under section 4.14 of the City Charter the council may still remove the auditor from office with or without cause.

I really won’t comment on the wisdom of expanding the auditor’s functions to include criminal investigation. I think it arises from a misconception by the council that criminal activity is the main cause of misspent government funds. In fact, most misspending of government money is caused by poor management, not crime. Further, having worked for an audit agency that added a criminal investigation unit I can testify that most of the time it was more trouble than it was worth.

I’m also not sure that the Inspector General Oversight Board provides sufficient independence for the City Auditor. So long as the auditor is hired and fired by the City Council s/he is subject to political pressures. However, I don’t think that Mr. Goldman’s idea that the auditor be elected by the people is the answer.

I propose the following as the best way to protect the independence of the City Auditor:

1- The term of the City Auditor should be set at a definite term, say seven years;
2- When there is a vacancy, the City Council would prepare a list of three candidates for the position;
3- The city’s Chief Administrative Officer would then appoint one of the people from the City Council’s list as the City Auditor;
4- The City Auditor could only be removed from office by the City Council and then only for cause.

Loyal reader, I’m not sure that guarantying the independence of the City Auditor is enough. Nor do I think that adding the inspector general functions to the auditor’s plate will make much of a difference. The problem is that no matter how big a watchdog we buy, it will not be able to protect the public fisc unless it has real teeth. Regardless of the powers that it assigns to the City Auditor, unless it also provides adequate funding for the office, the City Council will have accomplished nothing.

If you remember, two weeks ago Mayor Wilder’s budget proposed significantly reducing funding for the city auditor. Of course, the mayor’s proposal is absurd. However, merely funding the auditor’s office at this year’s level is clearly not enough.

In the article “Auditor's work, staff don't add up” last December, Times-Dispatch reporter Michael Martz indicated that the auditor’s office was operating with only half of its ten budgeted professional staff. The City Auditor was unable to hire additional staff because of inadequate salaries, competition from other jurisdictions and concern over turmoil at City Hall. David Ress’ TD article this Tuesday indicates that the auditor’s office is still operating with only five professional staff.

By adding the inspector general functions to the City Auditor’s office the City Council has assured that Mr. Dalal can not do his job adequately even if he is able to fill all the vacancies on his staff. I can’t see the auditor’s office doing all the auditing and investigative work that the council has assigned to it without a professional staff of at least twenty people. If the City Council is serious about protecting the taxpayer’s money it must appropriate sufficient funds to the City Auditor’s office to provide our watchdog with strong and sharp teeth.

Monday, March 24, 2008

We Have Nothing to Fear but . . .

I have now read Seventh District School Board member Keith West’s piece, The Broken Rule, in Style Weekly twice. I still don’t know what to make of it. It has gotten me angry, compassionate, understanding, discouraged, sad, and then angry again. In his article Mr. West reveals that he and his wife have chosen not to enroll their child in Richmond Public Schools. He says that the reason is fear.

First, I need to say that I greatly respect Mr. West’s courage in making his family decision public. As he says, his being on the School Board means that the West’s decision will face lots of public scrutiny. I also empathize with the frustration that Mr. and Mrs. West must have faced in reaching their decision. For somebody who ran for the School Board to fix Richmond Public Schools, it has to be difficult to publicly admit that the job wasn’t as easy as he thought.

I will not say anything more about the West’s decision. They have exercised their rights as parents and that should be the end of the matter. Last year, I might have thought differently. I might have suggested that if Mr. West was unwilling to send his own children to RPS he shouldn’t serve on the School Board. But, even in my seniority, I am still growing.

I need to talk about the statements in Mr. West’s article that produced such a wide range of emotion in me. First, he says:

While there are many students who receive an adequate education in Richmond schools, you don’t have to be a statistician to figure out that many more do not. Which group is your child going to fall into?

Obviously, Mr. West has spent more time in the schools than I have, so he must know of what he speaks. My limited experience working in two schools has been that the number of children receiving a good education is greater than those who aren’t. But, Mr. West insists that one does not have to be a statistician to know how inadequate an education our children receive. But, I wonder what statistics Mr. West is talking about. Is he talking about these statistics about the City of Richmond from the Crupi report?

•19 percent of the population lives in poverty – rates that are over twice as high as Henrico, ten times as high as Hanover and four times as high as Chesterfield.
• 25 percent of its children (0-17 years) live in households at or below 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level [i.e. below $20,650 annually].
• More than one of every two parents in Richmond is a single parent.
• Median income is less than 60 percent of the Greater Richmond average.
• 74 percent of students receive free/reduced price lunches.
• It has the highest rate of food stamp distribution in the state.
• Foster care rate is about three times the metro area’s rate.
• 50 percent of children are dependent on Medicaid or FAMIS [child health insurance program].
• 30 percent of kindergarten children need additional reading assistance.
• 14 percent of children from 3-4 years old are in the Head Start Program.
• 19 percent of children have disabilities and receive special needs education.
• It has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the metro area.
• 51 percent of students drop out of school according to a 2005-06 report by the VA Department of Education.
• The high school absenteeism rate is 26 percent and 14 percent in the middle schools [2005-2006].
• It is the only locality in the state in which all seven community problems involving youth are rated as “very serious.” Problems include: “violence on TV, movies, or in music.” lack of affordable and quality child care, lack of after school supervision, and alcohol and other illegal drug use by children or adolescents.

After looking at these statistics, Dr. Crupi concluded,

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the Richmond public schools are getting large numbers of children who are not ready for school, who grow up in single parent homes that don’t (or find it difficult to) reinforce education, require nutritional support, and live in a community environment that makes it very difficult to study and learn. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that much of the poverty is concentrated in 4000 public housing projects that are primarily located in Fairfield Court, Whitcomb Court, Gilpin Court, and Creighton Court. Were these problems in the counties, the schools would also have problems. (Emphasis added).

It is clear that many of our children come to school handicapped by the effects of multigenerational poverty. Yet it has been my observation that Richmond Public Schools is succeeding in helping most of these children overcome their “late start” in the race of education.

I have greater difficulty in dealing with this statement from Mr. West’s article:

Beyond the learning is a host of intangibles with corrosive effects that could be far more difficult to unravel than a faulty knowledge of ABCs. Will your children learn the value of honesty and hard work? Is cheating really tolerated in some classes? Will they show and receive proper respect and courtesy? Will they learn to love learning?In some classrooms the answer is yes. In a few schools the answer is yes. But consistently across the entire school system, the answer is no.

I guess I must be lucky, because in the schools in which I have been I have seen the children learning the value of honesty and hard work. I have seen no example of cheating, let alone cheating being tolerated. I have seen children showing each other and their teachers respect and courtesy. I have seen so many young faces glowing with the love of learning. But, again Mr. West obviously sees a lot more than I do. He has seen enough to conclude that across the entire school system our children are not being taught these values. This makes me sad and angry.

Mr. West goes on to say,

In every job category from custodian to central-office administrator you will find sterling examples of effort and ability working alongside people who aren’t doing their jobs and shouldn’t be drawing a paycheck. You will find some teachers who are imbuing a love of literature in their students, and others writing evaluations with made-up words and nonexistent grammar. You will find some principals prowling the halls gently correcting the transgressions of their little ones, and others hiding in their offices.

Again, I have not been in the schools in which the support staff does not earn their pay, where the teachers are unqualified, and where the principals hide. In the schools that I frequent, I have seen just the opposite.

Unfortunately, Mr. West may have “crossed the Rubicon” in making these statements. I really don’t know how he will be able to work with RPS administrators or school principals or teachers in the future when each one is wondering whether he was referring to them in the above paragraph. But I am not really concerned with that (at least not now).

What I really find most upsetting of everything Mr. West said was his statement that he and his wife are afraid to send their children to Richmond Public Schools. Mr. West emphasized that fear “is the right word.” Mr. West’s statement comes less than a week after I had a discussion with a Richmond public school principal. I asked why if the school was doing such a good job educating its children that the parents in the immediate neighborhood would not send their kids to the school. The answer—“They’re afraid.”

As you know, since I moved to Richmond I have been perplexed with the fact that hardly any of my neighbors send their kids to Richmond Public Schools. I have tried hard to understand.* I participate in a citizens group called Friends of Fourth District Schools that is working hard to provide every parent in the community with a viable public education option. We try to convince our neighbors that their children can get a quality education in the local schools and that they don’t need to move out of the city to get better schools for those children. I have assumed that if we helped Richmond Public Schools continue to improve and if we publicized the accomplishments of the schools eventually neighborhood parents would opt to use the public schools.

But, if what we are dealing with is fear, the task gets a lot tougher. What is the fear that the West’s feel and that my neighbors feel that keep their children out of the public schools they are paying for with their taxes? Mr. West expresses it:

I don’t want to feel like I have to second guess the number of assessments, or ponder the thoroughness of a math curriculum, or worry if the threatening note a classmate wrote is serious or not. I want to see my children off each morning with a feeling that I’m doing right by them.

Certainly, I empathize with Mr. West’s feelings. It is scary to send your young children out of the safety of your home. I know; I sent three of them to public schools. Having once gone to school myself, I know the kind of trouble a kid can get into. (Sometimes I wonder how I even survived my younger years). But the fear that Mr. West is expressing seems to go beyond what parents sending their first child to school feel. What is this fear?

I have heard some of my neighbors say that they don’t want their children in a situation in which they are different. I heard others say they think that being in a classroom with all these poor kids will mean that their children will not learn as much. I have heard some speculate that if their child goes to city schools she will have trouble getting into college. But what the school principal said makes the most sense to me. The principal said that my neighbors are afraid of putting their child into a classroom where he or she is the only child who is not African American. (A friend who was at that meeting with the principal told me that she withdrew her child from the neighborhood school because the child was the only white student in the class.)

So, dear reader, I come back to the beginning of the circle and it makes me sad. More than two years ago when I first wrote my perceptions of Richmond Public Schools to School Board member George Braxton I said,

although more than thirty years has passed since the end of "massive resistance," Richmond still has segregated schools. This segregation is not the result of the law but of the perception by those parents who can afford other options that their children cannot receive a quality education in Richmond public schools.

Fellow Richmond residents, we are caught in a bind. Except for four schools (Holton, Fisher, Fox and Munford) this city’s elementary schools have few if any white students. Because our neighborhood schools have so few white students, white parents are afraid to enroll their children in those schools. It’s a vicious circle:

Fear = Nonenrollment = Overwhelmingly African American School Population = Fear

If this city is to live long and prosper, we have to break this pattern. We’ve got to overcome the fear.

*Sometimes, I feel a bit hypocritical talking about the decision of some parents to opt out of Richmond’s public schools. If I were thirty years younger and I was facing sending my own children to our city’s schools, would I react any differently than the West family or my neighbors who are moving to Hanover or Henrico or Chesterfield? I really can’t say that I would.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

You Got Trouble Folks! Right Here In River City

In Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” Harold Hill, a brilliant salesman/scam artist warns the citizens of another River City that their children are in trouble because a pool hall has opened in town. He convinces them that the only solution is to create a boys marching band to “keep the young ones moral after school.” Of course, he expects to get rich selling all the parents musical instruments.

Were our troubles here in this River City so simple? If a marching band would solve all of Richmond’s problems, I am sure that every citizen would be more than willing to donate a trumpet, trombone, Sousaphone, tuba, drum or Glockenspiel to each of our city’s children. A marching band, however, will not solve Richmond’s problems. Nor will commercial development on the Boulevard, a public marina on the river adjacent to the Richmond-Henrico border, the performing arts center, another baseball team to replace the Braves, a regional transportation authority, or a new downtown master plan. None of these deal with the city’s most serious problem.

On March 12, I posted an open letter to those who are, or would be, candidates for mayor this year. I asked the candidates to tell us what they would do to fix what I called Richmond’s “middle class hemorrhaging disease” should they be elected. I described the “disease” as the exodus of the city’s middle class to the outer burbs to get for their children what they perceive is a better public education. So far, only Jackie Jackson has replied to my letter. 1
In her response, Ms. Jackson seeks to define herself as the education candidate in this year’s race. Prior to my open letter, I entered into an e-mail discussion with Paul Goldman, the other announced candidate for mayor. Mr. Goldman also describes himself as the education candidate. I assume, that if and when Bill Pantele or state delegate Dwight Jones throw their hats into the very large mayoral ring they too will claim to be the education candidate. (And, you can be sure that if Mayor Doug announces for reelection, as we all expect he will, he will also claim to be the education candidate.)

Of course, talk is cheap. Everybody claims to be pro-children and pro-education. But we need someone with some very good ideas about gaining middle class trust in our schools. We also need someone who is willing to invest more of Richmond’s revenues in public education, rather than freezing the city’s education appropriation for three consecutive years.

If you read Style Weekly, you know that the president of the city’s Council of PTAs, Tichi Pinkney-Epps, has charged that Richmond Public School’s open enrollment policy has created a resegregated school system in our fair city. 2 Ms. Pinkney-Epps’ accusation has ruffled the feathers of School Board member Kim Bridges and of parents of students who use the open enrollment policy to place their children in what are perceived as Richmond’s elite elementary schools. 3 ( Also take a look at the discussion on Near West End News and the comments to Style and the City Schools Stalemate on Carmelized OpiNIONS). Of course, Ms. Pinkney-Epps is not the first person to suggest that the open enrollment policy is unfair. School Board member Keith West has also challenged the fairness of the open enrollment policy. See Mr. West’s statement in Church Hill People’s News.

Ms. Pinkney-Epps' comment has caused divisions within the PTA council and between parents living in different parts of Richmond. It is clear that many people feel threatened by the dispute over open enrollment. It is unfortunate that at a time when we need our “village” to be united in its resolve to make RPS the best school system in Virginia we have this dispute. However, we need to realize that the controversy over open enrollment is a symptom rather than the disease. If we use it to examine the real issues involving schools perhaps we can start working on a cure.

We citizens pay taxes both to the Commonwealth and to the City of Richmond. We expect our tax dollars to be spent wisely by both jurisdictions and we want the public services that our dollars buy to be of high quality. This expectation surely must extend to our public schools. Yet there is a common view in this city that there is a vast difference in the quality of education that our nearly thirty elementary schools provide to our students. Everybody “knows” that children attending Mary Munford or William Fox north of the river or J.B. Fisher south of the river are getting a better quality education than are the students in the rest of our public schools. That is why parents who know about the policy take advantage of open enrollment to try to get their kids into those schools.

I live in Westover Hills, a neighborhood along the south side of the river that extends several blocks both north and south of Westover Hills Boulevard. We have a lovely neighborhood school (Westover Hills Elementary) but few if any children enrolled in that school live in Westover Hills. Parents in the neighborhood are convinced their children cannot receive a decent education in the Westover Hills School. So, if they can afford it they put their kids in private schools or home school them. Or, at great detriment to the City of Richmond, they move to the counties.

In a nearby neighborhood, Woodland Heights, after the School Board closed Patrick Henry Elementary School, parents found their children zoned into either Blackwell or Swansboro elementary schools. Neither of these schools has a good educational reputation, so the parents in Woodland Heights banded together to try to reopen Patrick Henry as a public charter school. Should the School Board not approve the Patrick Henry initiative, I fear that many other city children will be heading for the counties.

Whether it’s justified or not, there are a significant number of Richmond parents who have no confidence in their neighborhood school. (Serving as a Micah volunteer in two schools—Carver and Westover Hills—I know that the lack of confidence is not justified.) We citizens of the Richmond community, whether or not we have children or grandchildren living in the city, cannot just sit around and accept the status quo.

Last October in a letter to the Times-Dispatch and on this blog I suggested that open enrollment in combination with free interzone transportation had resulted in the concentration of middle class children in a few Richmond elementary schools. 4
I urged the School Board to consider eliminating open enrollment.

That was the idealistic side of the maven talking. Since that time, my practical side has been on the ascendancy. For one thing, our dwindling school population has a very detrimental effect on our school financing. As pointed out by the Times-Dispatch in Richmond penalized by Va. aid formula,
the City of Richmond receives less state education payments per student than do our neighboring jurisdictions of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico. The major reason for this disparity is that Richmond has so few children enrolled in its public schools compared to its population and tax base. Thus, under the state’s “composite index of local ability-to-pay,” Richmond appears to “need” less funding per student. If our school enrollment continues to drop, as projected by RPS, we will get less and less money from the state. I believe that without open enrollment many additional parents would take their children out of RPS. For this, and other reasons, the question of open enrollment is not as simple as I said in my letter.

So, dear reader, what do we do about our problem in River City? Last year on this blog I set forth these five suggestions for turning Richmond Public Schools into a world-class education system:

1- Attitude: Everybody in the City, starting with the mayor, members of the City Council, members of the School Board, the Superintendent of Schools, the Richmond Public Schools administration, school principals, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and citizens must deal with the schools as if each action or decision they make affects the future of their own children or grandchildren. . . . [I]f we are going to make the changes we need to make, everybody must abandon their personal agendas and concentrate only on what is best for our (not somebody else’s) children.
2- Demand Excellence: The Virginia 26 [the business leaders who offered their help in fixing RPS last summer] suggests that some of our children “begin their education destined to fail.” Other people, including members of the School Board, have stated that many children in RPS cannot handle a more rigorous curriculum. I say that we must abandon this attitude. We must set standards for all our students that push them to achieve the maximum of which they are capable. We must not be satisfied with SOL accreditation or passing federal yearly progress requirements. These are only based on students “passing.” We must demand, not that our students pass, but that they excel. At the beginning of every school year we must expect that every student in our school system will achieve A’s, not just C’s.
We must engage in best-practices studies to see what is working in other school systems. We must adopt those educational theories that have produced outstanding student achievement in other school systems.
3- Teachers: We must hold all teachers accountable for their students’ achievements. We must have a performance appraisal system that measures how effectively our teachers teach. We must do a regular evaluation of each teacher’s students to see how many are truly excelling. We must not accept as an explanation that “I used the same lessons last year and it worked with those students.” Although ultimately it is the student that learns, we must expect our teachers to prepare lessons that will enable each of their students to perform at their maximum capacity.
We must retrain all our teachers in new teaching methods. There have been many improvements in teaching methodology in recent years and we must make these developments available to all our teachers. We should not settle merely for teachers to be recertified periodically. We must insist that they constantly improve. Since many of our students are at risk because of their background, we must make sure that all our teachers know how to help these children.
4- Budgeting: . . . As taxpayers, who already pay much more in real estate taxes than our neighbors in the counties, we must demand that all unnecessary spending be removed from Richmond Public School’s budget. To do this I suggest that we adopt some form of zero-based budgeting. Under this concept, each office or program in Richmond Public Schools would have to come forward periodically and justify its continued existence. At least once every two years each department head must prepare budget justifications explaining in detail how the funds it received last year were spent and how this benefited the students in our schools. At the same time they would have to justify continued funding for that program in the next budget year. Based on these justifications, we would expect the School Board to allocate funding in the budget only to those departments or programs that are working. We would also expect the School Board to reduce staffing in those areas which currently are overstaffed.
5- Accountability: We are entrusting many people with the safety and future of our children. We must hold these people strictly accountable for their performance. If members of the City Council are irresponsible in their oversight and funding of the schools, we as citizens should vote them out at the next election. If members of the School Board are not demanding excellence from students, teachers and administrators, or if they are not adequately controlling the school budget, we citizens should vote them out at the next election. If the Superintendent of Schools is not effectively and rapidly steering Richmond Public Schools toward greatness, we should insist that the School Board replace her. If teachers are not teaching their students, we should demand that their performance improve or that they be replaced. Every person who has authority to spend school funds must be held strictly accountable for the money they spend.

This maven has become better educated about the schools since last year, so I’m not sure I would use the same language now. Further, in the eight or nine months since I wrote that piece the School Board and RPS have continued to make considerable progress. However, I do think that my five basic principles—1-treating all students in Richmond as if they were are own children, 2-demanding excellence from all our students, 3-expecting our teachers to use the best teaching methods, 4-responsible budgeting, and 5-accountability—are still applicable.

As a community we must commit ourselves to having a world-class public education system. We must restore parent confidence in our neighborhood schools. Richmond elementary school students must receive an equally high quality education whether they attend Mary Munford on the city’s west or Chimborazo on the east, Linwood Holton on the north or Summer Hill on the south. We must make the open enrollment policy obsolete by eliminating any reason for parents to move their children between schools. We must insist on a school system that is so good that not only will all our current families opt to enroll their children, but also families in the burbs will move back to the city to avail themselves of our schools. (You may say I'm a dreamer. . .)We must settle for nothing less. To become a great city, Richmond must have great schools.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

“Killing” Fascists

In their attempt to heap scorn on the recent peace protesters in Richmond, Washington, D.C., and other cities, the editors of the Times-Dispatch have showed their own ignorance. In the third of three bullets under the heading WEEK’S END in today’s TD the editors said:

A sign taped to the tuba of the Rude Mechanical Band outside IRS headquarters struck a rather incongruous note: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” But isn’t killing for peace like . . . oh, never mind.

The editors should know that the sign on the tuba was not original to the Rude Mechanical Band. The great American troubadour and songwriter Woody Guthrie had the identical message on his guitar during the 1930s and 1940s, when fascists like Mussolini, Franco and Hitler threatened freedom throughout the world. Guthrie’s message was simple—the music generated by his guitar and the words that he put to that music were as powerful weapons against evil as were bullets and bombs. Contrary to the suggestion of the TD editors, there is nothing incongruous in using music to combat the savage beasts.

Don’t Lower the Tax Rate, Invest in Schools

According to Michael Martz in the TD this morning, increased property assessments will produce extra revenue for the City of Richmond equal to a one cent change in the tax rate. 1 City Council President Bill Pantele used this news as additional ammunition in his debate with Mayor Wilder over whether the tax rate should be lowered in the city. Mr. Pantele argues that increased revenues anticipated from higher assessments will make it possible for the City Council to lower the tax rate from its current level of $1.23 per hundred dollars of real estate value. The mayor, on the other hand, argues that in these times of economic weakness it would be irresponsible to lower the tax rate.

You know me—there is little that Mayor Doug does that I approve of. However, in this dispute I have to agree with him that it would be irresponsible to cut the tax rate. It would be irresponsible, at least until the council makes sure that Richmond Public Schools are getting adequate funding. Since in preparing their budget both the Superintendent and the School Board were restricted by the council to the same level of city funding as in the two previous years, I do not believe that the school budget really meets the needs of our city’s children.

As I have, hopefully, made clear, our city’s public schools have a serious problem which is adversely affecting River City’s demographics. Richmond Public Schools is failing to educate hundreds of middle class children that reach school age in the city each year. These are the children whose parents opt out of RPS by moving out of the city, using private schools or home schooling their young’uns. The fact is that no matter how good Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman tells us Richmond’s public schools have become and how much better we’re gonna get, a large proportion of the students in RPS are there only because their parents cannot afford the other options.

Unfortunately, other commitments kept me from hearing Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s second “State of the Schools” address last week. I did read about it, however. The superintendent’s remarks are inspiring and make me feel really optimistic about the future of our schools. I felt the same way last fall when I attended two of the School Board’s public forums on the proposed “New Direction” for RPS. Come to think of it, I was equally enthused by Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s first “State of the Schools” last year, when she discussed her 2015 plan. Sometimes, however, I wonder whether all this inspiring talk is enough.

Look, I know that the members of the School Board and the entire RPS staff are doing a wonderful job. I know that the performance of our children, at least on the state’s SOL tests, has improved considerably. I spend a couple of hours each week in two of our elementary schools and I see dedicated teachers and our children working hard and eager to learn. You may remember that last fall I bragged about what a good a job RPS is doing. 2

Yet, there are so many parents in this city that do not believe that their neighborhood elementary school can give their child a first-class education. Our mayor has repeatedly told our citizens that the School Board and RPS are doing a bad job—wasting money with little results. Twenty-six of the Metro area’s business leaders have declared the state of our schools to be an “emergency.” The Crupi report, last fall, described one of the Richmond area’s negatives as “Weak City Public Schools.”

Look, I don’t like paying high taxes. Last summer, I raised the question of why we in the city pay so much more in taxes than do our neighbors across the border. 3
I would really enjoy the reduction in tax rates being offered by Mr. Pantele and other members of the City Council. But, I don’t want a tax cut if it means we are not giving all our children the best possible public education. I assume that the other residents of our fair city feel the same.

So to the City Council I say:
1- add funding to the school budget so that RPS can more quickly implement the “New Direction”;
2- add funding to the school budget to pay for converting several of the city’s elementary schools to International Baccalaureate Primary Years schools;
3- provide sufficient additional funds to the school budget so that RPS’ share of general fund expenditures is restored to at least the 26.11% level it was in fiscal year 2007, rather than the 24.71% currently planned for fiscal year 2009.

Honorable members of the City Council, you must look at money you appropriate for Richmond’s public schools as an investment in the future of our children, not as just dollars spent. We have thousands of children in our city who must have a first-class public education if they are to break out of the multigenerational poverty they were born into. We also must do something to win back the city children whose parents have not enrolled them in our public schools. Adequately funding our public schools is not just a matter of dealing justly with our children. It is also a matter of moving this city toward the greatness it can achieve.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Debate on Style Weekly Article

Fellow blogger RVA Foodie has started an online discussion growing out of a recent article in Style Weekly relating to our public schools. Rather than talking about that here, I urge you to join the discussion at

First read the Style article at

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An Open Letter to Doug and Jackie and Paul and Bill and . . .

I hear a lot of talk about the mayoral election this fall. The announced candidates Paul Goldman and Jackie Jackson tell us how bad things are and try to convince us they each are the one we should trust to fix them. The unannounced candidates Bill Pantele and Bruce Tyler also tell us how bad things are going under our beloved Doug Wilder, and I assume that as soon as they become candidates they will try to convince us that each is the only one that can fix things. The other unannounced candidate, Mayor Wilder, is hoping that he will run for reelection against at least four or five opponents who will split up the anti-Doug vote so that winning four more years will be a snap.

These candidates talk about regionalism and economic growth and master plans and efficiency in government and all those other standard issues that they think the citizens of Richmond are interested in. However, none of them will talk about the key issue that threatens the future of our city. Nobody wants to discuss bad news, especially when they can’t think of a solution. So, for all you once and future candidates. . .

Dear Candidate:

The City of Richmond, Commonwealth of Virginia, is suffering from a serious, perhaps fatal, illness. The symptoms of the disease are apparent from looking at the demographics of our neighborhoods. We have tons of elders who have raised their children in Richmond, have paid off their mortgages, have lived in the same houses for thirty or more years and will continue to live in those houses until they are too feeble to take care of themselves. We also have lots of young couples living in their first homes and enjoying the amenities of our fair city who are either childless or have children younger than school age. Our city also has a large group of people who live at or just above the poverty level and are struggling to feed and clothe their children and pay the rent. What Richmond does not have is a significant middle class. Our former middle class now lives in Chesterfield or Henrico or Hanover or places beyond.

The Richmond “middle class hemorrhaging disease” starts affecting couples when their oldest child turns four years old. They realize that they must start thinking about their child’s education. Being convinced that their precious young ones cannot get a quality education in their neighborhood public school, these middle class parents do one of four things: 1- If they can afford it, they enroll their child in private school; 2- If they can afford it, they choose to home-school their child; 3- If they know the rules of the game, they use Richmond Public Schools’ open enrollment policy to put their kid into one of Richmond’s elite public schools; or 4- They move out of the city. Based on the number of school-age kids I see running around my neighborhood, I’m convinced that option 4 is the most popular one. Our middle class is bleeding to the suburbs. The only parents who enroll their children in most of Richmond’s public schools are those who cannot afford the other options.

The numbers are clear. In the school year 1999-2000, twenty seven thousand children were enrolled in Richmond Public Schools. Every year since then enrollment has gone down. For the current school year, enrollment is about twenty two thousand five hundred students and that number is expected to go down next year. We’re talking about a reduction of over sixteen percent in only eight years. I am sure that there has not been a huge drop in the birth rate of city residents. I can only conclude that families with children are leaving Richmond if they can.

You also need to look at some other numbers. For the most recent years for which Richmond Public Schools’ website gives statistics, eighty eight per cent of the children enrolled are classified as “black” and seven percent are classified as “white.” (I apologize for talking about race. I know that in Richmond “polite” people don’t talk about such things.) Moreover, of our school population more than seventy percent are receiving subsidized lunches at school. If this were the 1960s, I might be tempted to describe Richmond Public Schools as racially and economically segregated. However, this is the twenty first century, so we don’t use such nasty words as segregation.

So, candidate, if you are elected, what do you intend to do to stop the bleeding? I know that under the laws of the Commonwealth it is the School Board, not the mayor, that is responsible for running the public schools. So, you might tell me that the quality and perceived quality of our schools is not an issue you need to be concerned with. However, we are not electing you merely to be chief executive officer of our city government. We are electing you to be our top community leader. And as leader of our community you cannot ignore the plight of our children. You cannot ignore the steady exodus of our middle class. You need to work with the Superintendent of Schools and the School Board and the City Council and civic, religious and business leaders to make Richmond Public Schools a world-class school system.

Providing great schools for our children is not just a matter of economic and racial justice. It is vital to the overall health of the city. A city with a population composed of just the old and the young, with nobody in between, is not healthy. A city population of just the affluent and the poor, with no middle class, is likewise unhealthy. When the middle class leaves a city it takes with it a significant part of the tax base.

If we want to have a city that is vibrant and safe and a wonderful place to live, we must invest in our public schools. How can we attract people to live in Richmond if we do not have great schools? How do we attract businesses to Richmond? Do we tell them this is a great place to work but advise them that their employees should live in the counties because our schools just aren’t that good?

Our current mayor and many members of our City Council believe that the best way to improve our schools is to restrict the amount of money that the city pays for schools. They apparently think that if the School Board and the school administration have to live on reduced rations the result will be a slimmer, more efficient school system. I don’t see them concerned with the quality of the education we provide our children. They fail to see that money that goes to our public schools is not money spent but an investment in our children’s future. Our children cannot afford a continuance of this “starve them to help them” attitude.

So, Madam or Mister Candidate, if we elect you as our next mayor, what will you do to keep and win back some of our exiled middle class? What will you do to guarantee that all the children in Richmond receive a world-class education? Tell me how you intend to turn Richmond Public Schools into a great school system. Without great schools, Richmond can never be a great city.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Of all the Hookers in all the Towns in all the World…

New York’s finest, Eliot Spitzer, got caught. And it’s all a terrible matter of bad luck. Every day, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of guys arrange for a little companionship and nobody ever knows about it. Eliot just had the misfortune of arranging for his afternoon delight with a prostitution establishment under surveillance by the Feds. So, I think it’s rather bad form for the Republicans in New York to be calling for Spitzer’s scalp. Come on, fellas, what’s so bad about a few hours with a beautiful lady?

Of course, I can’t say that the Governor showed any degree of smarts in this matter. We mortal men (and you gals, too) have to understand that we can’t apply normal moral standards to guys like Eliot. Men who crave power also seem to have a need for more lovin’ than the average wife can provide. So, I don’t get too upset when Mr. Spitzer finds the need to indulge. Of course, I’m a little surprised that Eliot had to pay for it. There must be lots of good looking woman in Albany who would be glad to relieve the Governor’s itch for free. But, I guess Mr. Spitzer felt that a professional woman tells no tales. So, Eliot (commonly known as Client 9) arranged for a four hour session with Kristen.

If you’re the Governor of New York, where would you want to spend some time with Kristen? Albany? Manhattan? No. Client 9, bless his little heart, decided on enjoying Kristen in our nation’s capital. Now, having lived right next door to the District for more than thirty five years, I’ve read that there are some awfully foxy looking professional women in that town. If Client 9 was afraid of being recognized in Albany or New York, he could have arranged to spend time with one of DC’s local girls. But not our Eliot. Apparently, Kristen was so special that he decided to take her on an afternoon excursion to his favorite DC “Motel Seven.” Being an attorney, and an ex-prosecutor to boot, Eliot must have known that the Feds frown on guys crossing state boundaries to sow their oats and have enacted this little thing called the Mann Act. It didn’t matter to Client 9. He wanted only Kristen and he wanted her in Washington. After all, who would ever know? I told you, dear reader; it was just terrible, terrible luck.

So let’s talk about Kristen. She must be something else. For a guy to risk his family, his job, maybe even his freedom for a few hours with her testifies to her beauty and abilities. And, she didn’t come cheap. Client 9 paid more for his afternoon delight with Miss Kristen than Richard Gere paid for a whole week with Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, so Kristen must be really special.

Don’t worry, friend, in a few weeks we’ll forget about this. It will be yesterday’s news. Who talks about Michael Vic any more?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Money is Tight?

I sit with two Times-Dispatch articles in front of me and I am a bit perplexed. Dear reader, this is not a case of my aged brain failing me. Rather, it is words and actions by the leaders of our beloved city that simply make no sense. I look at the TD front page headline of March 2, 2008, and read “Top Wilder aides’ pay up 13-20%.” ( Then I look at the headline in today’s Metro section and read “Wilder’s Budget: ‘Money is tight’.” ( Now, friend, even without reading these articles, you’ve got to admit that there is a breach in logic in these two stories. How can our CEO (Doug Wilder) claim that money is tight when his CAO (Sheila Hill-Christian) approves pay increases of 19 percent for Richmond CFO Harry Black, 18 percent for deputy CAO Saphira Baker, 17 percent for chief of staff Sandra Robinson, 16 percent for director of community development Rachel Flynn and 13 percent for Budget Director Raylord Harris? It seems to me this is a clear case of talking the talk but not walking the walk by the Wilder Administration. If money is so tight, why is it that the top executives of Richmond continue to prosper?

Today’s TD article quotes Mayor Doug as saying,

"Money is tight. Those who want to act as if the city coffers are full and growth is robust or will rebound quickly are deluding both themselves and the residents of Richmond."

Mr. Wilder has responded to the money crisis by limiting the increase in city spending to three percent. He also opposed cutting the real estate tax rate, calling any City Council attempt to cut that rate “a disingenuous election-year shell game.”

To prove that he is serious about keeping city spending under control, Doug proposed increases of 30% for his press secretary’s office, 17 percent for the CAO’s office, 15 percent for city procurement, 13 percent for the budget office, 10 percent for the finance office and 9 percent for his own office. To be fair, I must point out that he also proposed a 12 percent increase for the City Council chief of staff’s office (“throw the dog a bone”). To demonstrate that everybody in his administration must bear the suffering, Doug’s budget restricts pay increases for the city’s grunts to three percent.

Citizens of Richmond, something foul is going on here. It’s not just that Mr. Wilder’s budget does not match his rhetoric. What’s foul is that more than three years after we voted overwhelmingly for cleaning up the mess at City Hall we still have city leaders who have no concept of accountability for public money. The mayor, through his agent Ms. Hill-Christian, sees nothing wrong with awarding huge pay increases to top administrators while the average city worker is held to an increase of only three percent. What is worse is that the City Council has allowed the perpetuation of a system in which the mayor has the authority to make such arbitrary salary decisions.

The most shocking of Doug’s budgetary proposals is a 24% cut in funding for the city auditor. For our mayor to advocate such a cut is akin to the fox advocating extracting the teeth of the henhouse watchdog. (Put your gun away, Your Excellency, I am not accusing you of being a criminal). Auditing the operations of government is one of the guarantees we citizens have that our tax dollars are being properly spent. The keys to assuring accountability in our public servants are to remove temptation by strictly controlling how money is spent and for everybody to know that they are being watched. Recent reports by the city auditor indicate that there are inadequate controls in many of the city’s operations. Mayor Doug’s proposal to cut funding for the auditor’s office would, if accepted by City Council, convey to city employees the belief that nobody is reviewing their actions. I am not suggesting that public employees are a dishonest bunch. However, even though I trust my neighbors, I’m still gonna lock my front door at night.

Don’t think that I am limiting my criticisms to the Wilder Administration. There is plenty of blame to be borne by our valiant knights on the City Council. I have to agree with the mayor that all this talk of a cut in the tax rate is related to the upcoming election. Many of our council people have accomplished little during their terms and want to at least be able to claim that they have cut the tax rate. When I receive a report from my council representative (paid for I assume by my tax dollars) bragging about cutting the tax rate I have to wonder. Do these nine people really think we don’t know that we pay far more in real estate taxes than do any of our suburban neighbors? Last year I asked why we in Richmond pay so much more for government than do the people on the other side of the city’s meandering borders.
( I have never received an answer.

Another failing of the City Council is that it has not legislated systemic changes in city operations that would provide more controls on wasteful spending. Being our legislature, the council is not only responsible for passing ordinances. It is also responsible for oversight of city operations. If the City Council is serious about controlling wasteful spending it needs to sift through every page of the mayor’s budget and demand justification for every penny Doug intends to spend.

I have saved for last my views on the part of the budget dealing with Richmond Public Schools. The TD article this morning indicated that the mayor proposed to increase funding for the schools, “the biggest portion of the budget,” by 0.6% to a total of $161 million. First we need to look at the figures. The $161 million mentioned includes about $28.5 million in state sales tax money that the city receives for the schools. For reasons not clear to me, the city counts the money it receives from the state as revenue when it arrives and as expenditure when it is transferred to RPS. Since these funds are merely a pass-through, it makes no sense to me to consider them as a payment from the city. In fact, the city’s payment for public schools is only $132.5 million. This means that funding for schools is not “the biggest portion of the budget.” That honor goes to “Safety and Judiciary.” It also means that city spending for schools is not increasing by 0.6% but by only 0.4%. The fact is that city spending for schools will have increased by only about $500,000 over the three fiscal years 2007, 2008 and 2009, if the mayor’s budget proposal is improved. That $500,000 increase is about the same as the total salary increases received by our top city officials. In a city in which the perceived quality of public education, and the resulting exodus of our middle class, is an issue of critical importance, the mayor continues to show that he is out of touch with our real needs. If the City Council goes along with this miniscule increase in school funding, it will demonstrate that its members too don’t represent the true interests of Richmond’s residents.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Doug, Put Your Gun Away

Before I get to the point, let me first say that I am removing City Council member Ellen F. Robertson from my short/long list of possible candidates to succeed Mayor Doug. Ms. Robertson is quoted in this week’s Style Weekly as saying, ““We shouldn’t be hiring criminals to run this city,” and then made it clear that she was referring to Richmond Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian. (
Whether she misunderstood the question posed by Style Weekly reporter Chris Dovi, as she claims, or was given four opportunities to change her statement, as indicated by Style editor Jason Roop, Ms. Robertson’s failure to consider the consequence of her words indicates that she is not ready to captain our fair city.

This gets me to the words of another “potential” candidate in November’s mayoral election. As quoted in the Times-Dispatch this morning, Mayor Doug used these words to describe what he intends to do to defend Ms. Hill-Christian:

"Will we do something? You better bet it. I don't believe in pulling out a pistol to tell you I'm going to shoot you. I believe differently. I believe in shooting you if that's going to have to be the case. I don't have to pull it out and show it to you. So whatever we will do, we will do it."

Is this “one-gun-per-month” Doug that is talking about “shooting you” as a metaphor for a lawsuit? Doesn’t His Mayorship know that the Times-Dispatch is G rated and that there may be impressionable children reading his statement? There are far too many Richmonders dying of gunshot wounds for our CEO to use gun language loosely. When the mayor of our fair city states publicly that he believes in shooting people rather than merely threatening to do so, he has crossed the line. Mr. Wilder has demonstrated that he too fails to consider the consequences of his words and, like Ms. Robertson, is not the person we want leading our city.

Pray, Then do God’s Holy Work

Congratulations to my friend Ben Campbell on the completion of the second year of his Metro Richmond at Prayer initiative. According to Robin Farmer’s report in Saturday’s Times-Dispatch, 350 Richmond area churches participate in Metro Richmond at Prayer, which Reverend Campbell started in 2006. ( The article mentioned Reverend Campbell’s goal of adding 500 churches in the prayer initiative’s third year.

Ben Campbell was also involved in forming another faith-based project in Richmond—the Micah Initiative—which started in 2003. Micah is Richmond’s most extensive tutoring-mentoring program with nearly 60 congregations participating in twenty-six Richmond elementary schools. Hundreds of Micah mentors demonstrate their faith by pursuing justice for the children of our city. Micah volunteers dedicate their time and energy to fixing the world one child at a time.

Through no fault of their own, many of Richmond’s children are caught in a multigenerational cycle of poverty. Some of them have parents who are incarcerated; others have parents who are addicts; many of them have witnessed deadly violence right near their homes. For these children, a quality public education is their only hope for avoiding extending poverty to another generation. Yet, these children start school with a great handicap. Unless the people of Richmond come forward to help them it is unlikely that they will succeed.

In the TD article, Ben Campbell is quoted as saying that the prayer initiative

affirms our common commitment to the healing and transformation of the metro city. We want to make sure we're real clear that God's interest is in the health of the metro area and its people and not simply in churches. We want God's agenda out there for all of us.

Although Ben and I come from different religious backgrounds, I agree with him that prayer is a powerful force that can change lives. However, I do not believe that prayer alone will solve the problems of Richmond. If “healing and transformation” of our city is “God’s agenda,” then we as God’s agents must get personally involved in doing the healing.

The name of the Micah Initiative is based on verse 8 of chapter 6 of the Book of Micah where the prophet says,

It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

The plight of the poor children of Richmond is clearly a case of injustice. Doing “justly,” in the words of Micah, requires us to work to free them from the poverty trap. Many of Richmond’s children are shackled by their poverty; they come to school weighed down by the condition of their lives. Praying that they do well in school and in life is only the first step in doing justly. In the words of Isaiah we must “unlock the shackles of injustice” and “let the oppressed go free.” Isaiah 58:6.

Justice does not simply sprout up from prayer and hoping. We must work to achieve it. In the Hebrew words of Scripture, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof”—“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Deuteronomy 16:20. We can not “pursue” justice by merely praying for it. We must bring it to Richmond through our actions.

After reading the TD article, I started thinking—wouldn’t it be great if the 350 churches participating in Metro Richmond at Prayer, and the 500 more that Reverend Campbell is seeking, also joined the Micah Initiative? If each of these congregations could put only ten adults into Richmond Public Schools, we would have an additional 850 people working to save our children. So, Ben, I urge you to add to your “covenant” a call for action. Urge all the churches that participate in Metro Richmond at Prayer to also join the Micah Initiative. Let us all fulfill “God’s agenda” through prayer and holy work.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hail to McCain

John McCain took one giant step toward being the next tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday. And that step had nothing to do with the four primary wins that guaranteed him the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. No, Senator McCain got much closer to the White House because Barack Obama did not finish off Hillary Clinton in the Democratic contests. This means that the fratricidal (I include sisters as well as brothers in “fratricide”) war between senators Clinton and Obama will continue for at least another month. It also means that the eventual loser of the Democratic nomination fight will spend at least another month working daily to help Senator McCain win the November election.

In its wisdom, and in the expressed desire to make the process more democratic, the Democracy has rejected the winner-take-all primary in favor of proportional representation. This means that although Senator Clinton has won the primaries in almost all the big states so far, she has only captured a few more delegates than Senator Obama in those states. (For example, in the large state primaries that she won yesterday, Senator Clinton only earned fourteen more delegates than Senator Obama in Ohio and four more than Obama in Texas). Senator Obama, on the other hand, has won most of the small states by margins large enough to earn him most of their delegates. The proportional representation system means that although Hillary beat Barack in three of the primaries yesterday she only won twenty delegates more than he did and still trails him by about one hundred pledged delegates. (Including the unpledged “Super Delegates” that have indicated their preference shrinks Barack’s lead to about fifty).

If you have paid attention to the Democratic race since Senator Obama won all three of the middle Atlantic primaries a few weeks ago you surely noticed that the campaign has turned very negative. The Democrats have no such thing as the “Reagan Rule” (thou shalt not attack another Republican), and so both sides have been firing broadsides asserting that the other is not fit to be president. The era of good feeling, in which Barack and Hillary each went out of their way to publicly praise the other, is over. This is no longer a campaign of “We’re both good, but I’m better.” Now, it’s “Vote for the other guy and Western Civilization will crumble.” And, since negative campaigning seems to have been effective in Senator Clinton reversing Senator Obama’s momentum in the race, you can be sure that she will continue to use it in the future. I’m sure Senator Obama will respond in kind. All these negative ads will undoubtedly aid Senator McCain’s campaign in the fall against whoever wins for the Democrats.

Those who have participated in the Democratic Party nominating process this year are almost equally divided between supporters of Hillary and supporters of Barack. And because of the historic nature of the contest (first woman against first African American) there are many people who are extremely committed to the candidate of their choice. There are those in the Clinton camp who will support nobody for president other than Hillary. Likewise, there are people in the Obama camp who will only support Barack. Further, the direction that the campaign has taken is going to make many people very bitter should their candidate lose. (This will be especially so if the loss results from the votes of Super Delegates). Many Hillary supporters will not work to get Obama elected and many Barack supporters will not work to get Clinton elected. This fact will make it difficult for the winner of the nomination to unite the party behind her/him for the race in the fall.

So, it is not unreasonable for Senator McCain to start humming “Hail to the Chief.” The Democrats are engaged in another one of their self-destruct rituals, which will most likely cripple the nominee for the fall race. Unless Senator McCain chooses a running mate who will scare away moderate voters, he will be taking the presidential oath next January.