Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Reverend Wright Conspiracy?

I am not one of those conspiracy freaks. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy. I believe that United States astronauts actually walked on the moon. I believe that it was al Qaeda, not the CIA, that attacked the World Trade Center in 2001. However, there is something about this Reverend Wright thing that gives me bad vibes.

Can it be just a coincidence that the videos of Reverend Wright’s preaching surfaced when Senator Clinton’s campaign was at rock bottom? And, what about those photos of the reverend with Bill Clinton in the White House? Isn’t it possible that the videos were actually released by the Clinton campaign? Can it be that Reverend Wright is a secret agent in the Clinton campaign and staged his preaching trip to make sure that his views would remain as a cloud over the Obama campaign? In the last debate, wasn’t Senator Clinton particularly gleeful when she repeatedly found Senator Obama guilty by association? Is it just a coincidence…

Maven, cut it out. You sound like one of those conspiracy crazy.

Thank you, precious reader, for stopping my ranting. Bill and Hillary Clinton couldn’t be that devious. Could they?

Can Too!

As I walked past the neighborhood playground yesterday I heard some toddlers arguing about whether this maven had the right stuff to be a politician. One child kept saying “Can not, can not,” while the other insisted “Can too, can too.” So, to solve this argument, let me issue the following statement:

I am responsible for nothing. All the problems in Richmond schools are the fault of the Republican President, the Democratic Congress, the Republican House of Delegates, the Democratic Governor, His Excellency Mayor Wilder, the inept City Council, the even inepter School Board, the Superintendent of Schools, the top-heavy school bureaucracy, school principals, teachers and parents. If you elect me, I will fix everything. It will be “Happy Days are Here Again,” “A Chicken in Every Pot,” and a 100% graduation rate. I will also single-handedly cut the property tax-rate by fifty cents. Poverty will be gone. We will all love each other. So, in November vote for your last best hope—ME!

And, to think that some little kid didn’t think I could be a politician!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

School Issues: The Playing Field

In 1986, the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to James M. Buchanan, Jr., of George Mason University, for his theory that in the public sector actors make decisions based on their perception of their own best interests. In other words when you and I go to the polls every November, or when our senators vote in the United States Senate, or when our city council votes on an ordinance, we all opt for the choice that we think will do us personally the most good.

Maven, what does this have to do with Richmond Public Schools?

Loyal reader, be patient, there is more you have to learn.

In Fairfax County, where I lived when my offspring were wee little ones, to finance new school building construction requires passage of a school-bond referendum by the voters of the county. Western Fairfax County back in the early 1980s was experiencing a population explosion and was suffering from a severe shortage of schools. So, to construct the middle and high school buildings for my children to attend, the county proposed a school board referendum.

In some areas of Fairfax County the population was aging and the public schools were underutilized. In those areas of the county there was great support for a group of public minded citizens called the Fairfax Taxpayers Alliance. Now, there never was a tax, or anything resembling a tax, that the Alliance didn’t oppose. So, whenever the county proposed a bond referendum, the Alliance used all its powers to defeat it. The Alliance appealed to all the residents whose children had already graduated from the public schools, arguing that the referendum was unneeded and that it would incur county debt to help only one portion of the county. Well, even though we in the western part of the county badly needed those schools, the bond referendum was defeated.

Maven, you’re putting them to sleep!

Wait, let me put these things together. The proponents of the Fairfax school bond referendum apparently had not read Dr. Buchanan’s books. They did not realize that people always vote in their perceived best interest and that people who did not have children in overcrowded schools in the western part of the county saw no benefit to themselves in voting for the county to assume additional debt.

Dear reader, a constantly growing proportion of the population of River City does not use the services of Richmond Public Schools. Although the population of the city may have stabilized, the number of children in our schools is constantly plummeting. Census estimates had indicated that the population of Richmond dropped by about 2.5% between 2000 and 2006. However, a recent Times-Dispatch article by Michael Paul Williams stated that Richmond’s population is on the rise again.
Richmond population on the rise According to statistics from Richmond Public Schools, on the other hand, the population of students attending our public schools is constantly dropping. The Superintendent of Schools budget proposal for fiscal year 2008-2009 estimates that the school population will drop to less than twenty two thousand children by next year. In the school year 2001-2002 the enrollment was more than twenty five thousand. Statistics on the RPS website indicate that school enrollment goes down about 500 students each year. 1

If Dr. Buchanan’s Pulitzer-winning theory works in Richmond as it apparently worked in Fairfax County early in the 1980s, it means that the number of voters in the city who consider adequate funding of the public schools to be in their own best interest is shrinking. How many of the current members of the City Council represent a district in which the quality of and funding for Richmond Public Schools is really a make-it or break-it issue? Will the winning candidate for mayor in November really need to capture the parent vote to be elected?

Maven, this is getting pretty discouraging.

Not so, dear reader. There is another part of the story you need to hear. After the defeat of the school bond referendum in Fairfax, the pro school construction people changed their tactics. The following year, rather than a bond referendum that would only fund new construction, the county proposal included funding to fix and upgrade older schools throughout the county. Suddenly the number or citizens who could vote for the referendum as being in their best interest increased drastically and the referendum passed. My children got their middle and high schools.

What is the lesson for River City? We have to significantly increase the number of Richmonders who believe that providing the city’s children a first-class education is in their best interest. Based on the enrollment figures, the parents of children in our schools probably don’t have enough clout in the city to go it alone. They must be joined by the business community and the faith community and the civic community and our university communities and the people in the city who don’t have children in our schools. We must all join together as vocal advocates for the children in our city. We must make known to our political leaders that we will hold them accountable if they don’t provide sufficient resources for our children.

We also must act now! We cannot sit around discussing various remedies while our school population keeps dropping by 500 every year. Last year the “Richmond 26” wrote a letter to the mayor and city council about what they perceived as the “emergency” problems of Richmond Public Schools. At the time, this maven commented that although I don’t think that the condition of Richmond Public Schools is really an emergency “we need to deal with Richmond Public Schools as if there were an emergency.”
Fix Our Schools, Now.

In the past two years we citizens of Richmond have been exposed to the Superintendent’s “2015 Plan” and the School Board’s “New Direction.” Each was touted as the miracle elixir for Richmond Public Schools. Each seemed to stay as just a plan without any significant implementation. If Richmond Pubic Schools is to win the confidence of the parents in this city it has to stop announcing new plans and start doing something. We do not need to reinvent the wheel every year. We already know things that work elsewhere. Let’s try them here.

We need more AP and other honors programs in all our general high schools. We need more than one IB diploma program in the city. We must at least double the number of our IB middle years programs and must introduce the IB primary years programs in four of our elementary schools.

Will it be costly? Yes.

Will it work? We will never know unless we try.

I am a great believer in IB. I know of its effectiveness in providing a high quality education to all the students in schools where most students were considered at risk.

Do we need to set up further studies? No.

We need to discuss it with our teachers and with our PTAs and then we need to do it. The people of Richmond want action, not more talk or plans.

The Buck Stops Nowhere!

As I was surfing through the channels on my trusty Comcast cable last night I suddenly came upon the session of the Richmond City Council. Since there were commercials on the other channels any way, I decided to watch for a while. When it became too unbearable to watch, I shut off the television. That was about seven or eight minutes later.

The council was discussing a paper (councilese for a bill) that would authorize a study of whether the auditing functions of the city and Richmond Public Schools should be combined. I have lived in Richmond long enough to know that when the members of the council want to duck an issue they usually authorize a study. That way they can put off taking any action for a while or, if they are lucky, the issue might just go away.

Well, it soon became apparent to me that I had missed the highlight of the evening. It seems that some citizen had had the temerity during public comments to blame the council for the fiscal mismanagement in the city. As I joined the show, Council President Pantele was expressing his outrage at the offending taxpayer. Mr. Pantele made it clear that he thought the citizen had abused the public comment period by heaping scorn on the council. Mr. Pantele, who apparently does not agree with Harry Truman’s “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” stated that he was offended that any citizen could even think that the City Council was accountable for anything that goes on in the city.

Mr. Pantele was followed by Council Vice President McQuinn who joined the “no mea culpa” theme. Ms. McQuinn stated quite clearly that she would accept no responsibility for any fiscal mismanagement in the city. Since she had never written a check on behalf of the city or instructed any city employee to take any action, she clearly felt no need to acknowledge that all this maladministration had happened on her watch. Ms. McQuinn’s “see no evil, hear no evil” posture fits in quite nicely in River City.

Then Northside District councilperson Hilbert started talking. He spoke of some meaningful things, like the City Council’s oversight responsibility for all the operations of city government. He also expressed his opinion that the Wilder Administration had violated the terms of the council’s budget ordinances and that the council had a responsibility to expose the administration’s misdeeds.

It was at this time that Central District councilperson Jewell shouted out “Point of order, Mr. President.” Mr. Jewell, a staunch supporter of the mayor, felt that Mr. Hilbert’s discussion of oversight and accountability was not germane to the paper being considered by the council. President Pantele agreed and ruled Mr. Hilbert out of order. The only “relevant” part of the discussion was over. I pushed the OFF button on my remote in disgust.

So, citizens of Richmond, we have a mayor who goes around with a “What, Me Worry?” attitude. He can’t be blamed for any wrong that happens in the city because he denies any knowledge. We have a City Council whose members think they are not accountable or responsible for anything that goes on in the city. And we taxpayers just keep on paying the bills.

Dear reader, the next time you have nothing to do on a Monday night watch the Richmond City Council in action. It is obviously the best reality show in town.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Please Help Me Here

Although I have lived in Virginia more than two-thirds of my life, and when people ask me where I’m from I’m proud to say I’m from Virginia, I am still disabled by the early years I spent in Yankee-land. So, there are times when I just can’t understand what I read in my morning Times-Dispatch. You who are regular readers of the Maven know that I have had this difficulty before. So, you’re probably not surprised when I say that I have no idea what the TD editorial “Dinner Guests” means. In case you missed it—

Del. Dwight Jones has announced his candidacy for election as Richmond's mayor. Doug Wilder responded to the news with a statement:
"I have seen nothing as of yet that would influence my plans, nor do I see an earnest commitment to continue the positive change we have already begun."
When Deborah Jewell-Sherman announced she will retire as superintendent of Richmond's schools, Wilder said:
"Suffice it to say that Dr. Jewell-Sherman has brought improvement to the academics of the school system since taking the job and she has received ample credit for that."
A dream dinner would be to sit between Wilder and . . . Winston Churchill -- and across from Alice Roosevelt.

Really, trusted reader, that’s all there is to it. Now, the version in the print edition differs from the cyber version in being prefixed by “Two Masters,” so that could be a clue to the ethereal thinking of our TD editors.

I often think that the editors of the TD are mired in the Twentieth Century in their philosophy. But to talk about Winston Churchill and Alice Roosevelt convinces me that they haven’t even made it to the 1960s. Most of us know about Mr. Churchill. I think I even remember him. Alice Roosevelt, however, is not a name that rolls off the tongue very frequently these days. As a great admirer of our twenty sixth president, I know that Alice was the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt’s short and tragic marriage to Alice Lee. I know that she was an outspoken teenager when her father was president and, after she married Congressman Nicholas Longworth, she became a fixture on the Washington, DC, social circuit.

So, let’s go back to “Dinner Guests.” The two quotes from His Mayorship are typical Doug. They certainly don’t compare with anything that ever came out of the mouth or pen of Winston Churchill, who was one of the finest speakers, writers and statesman of the last century. In using the preliminary “Two Masters,” can the editors possibly be comparing the mayor with Mr. Churchill? Can they be so deluded as to think that they can even use the names Douglas Wilder and Winston Churchill in the same breath? Nothing has ever crossed the mind of Doug Wilder that can compare with Mr. Churchill’s “We shall never surrender,” or “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” or “This was their finest hour.” I think that if Doug and Winston had ever been at the same dinner table it is highly unlikely that the mayor would ever get to speak and if he did I’m sure Mr. Churchill would slash him mercilessly with his repartee. After a few minutes it would be a really dull dinner.

So, maybe the two masters are the Doug and Alice. I have done a bit of research on things that Alice Roosevelt said. Here are her best quotes:
“I have a simple philosophy. Empty what’s full. Fill what’s empty. Scratch where it itches;” “Harding was not a bad man, he was just a slob;” [Coolidge] looks as though he was weaned on a pickle;” and “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, sit right here by me.” So maybe Doug is a little closer to Alice than to Winston. But, at least Alice was funny. Doug is just a grumpy old man.

I don’t understand the TD. During Mr. Wilder’s tenure as mayor, no matter how outrageous have been his actions or his words, the TD editors can see no evil. They always explain Doug by saying that there is plenty of blame to go around, or that “the people wanted a strong mayor.” The TD editors are always looking at Doug through the rosiest of glasses. As a man much wiser than this maven once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. But the Times Dispatch . . .”

Friday, April 25, 2008

Eric Canter a Fiscal Conservative?—No Way

Well, the letter in this morning’s TD entitled “Cantor Speaks Truth to Big Spenders,” does not merit the Maven’s most wonderful letter of the day award. But I do need to respond to it. The writer discusses the philosophical differences between representatives Eric Cantor and Jim Moran “and their parties.” The writer concludes that Mr. Cantor and the Republicans want to reduce spending and taxes while Mr. Moran and the Democrats want to increase both.

Unfortunately, our author only looks to Mr. Cantor’s rhetoric and not to his actions. We need to look at some facts.

Mr. Cantor and George W. Bush, the leader of his party, were elected on the same Election Day. They both entered into federal service during the same January 2001. At that time our Federal Government carried a debt of $5,727,776,738,304.64 or about 5.7 trillion dollars. That sure was a lot of debt. But wait, as of today the debt of our Federal Government is (drum roll) $9,341,527,250,070.24 or about 9.3 trillion dollars. My calculator tells me that this amounts to an increase of about 3.6 trillion dollars. So Mr. Cantor and Mr. Bush, during their brief seven plus year sojourn in Washington have increased the amount of money that every man, woman and child in the United States owes by about 63%.

Wait, our author might say. Maven, you’re being unfair blaming this on Mr. Cantor. Everybody knows that it is the Democrats that like to spend, spend, spend, and that it’s the Republicans that want to cut taxes.

Eric Cantor cannot deny that he has been one of President Bush’s most loyal followers in the House of Representatives. He did not get to the top of the heap in the Republican leadership by being a maverick. He has consistently voted for Mr. Bush’s tax cuts and for thirteen annual appropriations acts every year since he has been in Congress. I know of no instance during the six years when he was in the majority when Mr. Cantor complained of pork barrel spending by his own party. It is only when the electorate made the congressional Republicans into the minority party that Mr. Cantor suddenly became concerned by wasteful spending. And, as for cutting taxes, as I pointed out on this blog nearly two years ago,

The Republicans claim they are fiscally responsible. They claim they have lowered taxes. Come on RNC. Are the actions of Mr. Bush and his Republican congressional cohorts really resulting in lower taxes? Hell no! They have merely moved the tax burden from themselves to a future generation. Eventually some one has to pay off that debt. Their spend now-pay later philosophy is the farthest thing from fiscal responsibility I can think of. 1

Every year that Eric Cantor has been in Congress he has raised taxes on our children and grandchildren by spending more money than we have. It is quite that simple. If our author thinks that makes Mr. Cantor a fiscal conservative, he needs to think again.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Blues for Our Times

When I was driving to the store earlier today to do some shopping, the low fuel light on my dashboard lit up. I stopped at WAWA and filled up the tank at $3.47 per gallon. (I no longer shudder at $50 fill-ups). On the way back from the store the price at the same WAWA was $3.53 per gallon. It led me to write the following. (My apologies to Robert Johnson and Son House).

Blues for Our Times

I woke up this morning saw my fuel gauge on E,
Yes I woke up this morning saw my fuel gauge on E,
Went down to the corner
To see what gass-leen would be.


Oh these gas-o-line, gas-o-line, gas-o-line blues
These gas-o-line blues are a-killing me.

Walked down to the station, cost too much to drive
I walked down to the station, cost too much to drive
Bad news on the pump,
Gallon’s three sixty five.


Got called by my neighbor to help fix her floor
I got called by my neighbor to help fix her floor
I had to decline,
Couldn’t drive to next door.


The mighty big oil company’s making big profits
Yes, the mighty big oil company’s making big profits
And the oil spec-u-laters
Got their hands in our pockets.


It’s Just Not Right

I don’t usually like to talk about my volunteer activities, but…

This morning I was tutoring a girl at a local Richmond school. She was very restless and had trouble paying attention. Then she started talking about lunch. I asked her if she had eaten breakfast. She said no, but she had eaten breakfast yesterday.

Dear reader, there is something lacking in a community that let’s its children go to school hungry. We expect our public schools to educate all our children, but no child can learn when her stomach is grumbling and all she can think of is food.

In my humble opinion, it’s just not right.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A New Chapter for the Maven

To my cyberfriends:

It is with great enthusiasm that I announce my candidacy for the Richmond School Board to fill the fourth district vacancy. I am running for the School Board because I am deeply committed to public education. I believe that we, the citizens of Richmond, are obligated to provide a first-class education to all of our children. Although we have made considerable progress in the quality of our schools over the past few years, the job is not done. I can provide the leadership to continue the journey.

Until now, I had no plans to run for public office. I just wanted to live close to my grandchildren and enjoy my retirement. However, a few years ago I became involved with Richmond Public Schools as a volunteer in the Micah Initiative. Soon after that, I started serving on the Citizen's Advisory Group for Communities in Schools at Westover Hills Elementary School. I have also been on the Board of Directors of Friends of Fourth District Schools. Although all of these "jobs" give me great satisfaction, I now need to do something that will allow me to help more than a few children at a time.

I am lucky to have received a quality public education. Had not my grandparents' and parents' generations made the commitment to provide high quality public schools for me to attend, I am sure that I would have never achieved what I have achieved in life. Now that I am a grandfather, it is time for me to start paying forward.

I know that voters are tired of candidates who make promises they cannot keep. Therefore, I promise to my neighbors only that I will always put the interests of the children first, that I will be honest, and that I will do everything I can to make Richmond Public Schools a system we can be proud of.

I base my candidacy on the following goals:

1- Restore public trust in the operation of Richmond Public Schools. The recent report by the City Auditor has greatly weakened the confidence of Richmond citizens in our school administration. Before we can accomplish anything else, it is vital that the citizens of Richmond be assured that their money is being used lawfully and efficiently. We must demand accountability from all our public servants. I believe in a zero-tolerance policy for public officials or employees who misuse the public's money.

2- Win the confidence of all parents in Richmond that their children can receive a high quality education in Richmond Public Schools. It is clear that many parents in the fourth district do not choose to send their children to Richmond Public Schools. I have spoken to my neighbors and I have heard lots of explanations for this attitude. We can do little to change the minds of those parents who have already opted out of our public schools. But we can provide an outstanding education to all those children who are in our schools now and to those who will become students in the future. I will work hard to make Fisher, Southampton and Westover Hills elementary schools, Brown and Thompson middle schools, and Huguenot High School models of excellence that will provide all the children in the fourth district top-quality educations. These schools will serve as magnets attracting parents to enroll their children.

3- Demand excellence from our students, teachers and administrators. We have made remarkable progress and most of the city's schools now meet state standards. However, this means only that the majority of our children are passing. We must create the expectation that all our children will get A's in school, not just C's. Although many of our students are performing at a level higher than passing, I am afraid that many are not. I am convinced that our children will meet the expectations that we set for them. If we only ask them to pass, they will only pass. However, if we insist that their goal is to earn an A in every course, they will perform at a much higher level. We must have tough curricula that challenge our children to achieve their best.

I have watched some of our remarkable teachers working skillfully and with dedication to help our students learn. Many of our children, who are pre-selected for failure by studies from the US Department of Education, are thriving in Richmond Public Schools. We must continue to assure that our teachers are the best available and that they maintain their excellence through meaningful continuing education. We must recognize the accomplishments of our outstanding teachers.

4- Involve the entire Richmond community. Our School Board often makes decisions in isolation. The problems facing our children are so significant, however, that we must involve everybody in the decision-making process. Before making decisions the board must consult with teachers, parents, civic groups and the academic and business communities. Further, although reasonable minds may disagree on policy, we can no longer afford for our School Board to be divided into rival factions.

I have no illusion that achieving any of these goals will be easy. These are not things that can be accomplished in the first few months or even years of any school board member's term. But as a sage said about two thousand years ago, "You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it."

I cannot do these things alone so I am urging you all to join me in this campaign for our children. I need the help of young and old; I need the help of you who are empty nesters and have already raised your children; I need the help of you who are young and do not yet have children; I need the help of you who are financially well off and you who are struggling financially; I need the help of African Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics.

We must provide a world-class education for all the children of our city not because it will benefit the economic development of our city and region, which it certainly will. We must provide a world-class education for all the children of our city not because it will be cheaper to invest in them now than to bear the costs of their future failure if we don't, which is also certainly true. Rather, we must provide a world-class education for all of our children because it is the right and the just thing to do. It is our obligation to do it. Working together, we will do it.

Under the election laws of Virginia I cannot run for office as the James River Maven. Therefore, I must reveal my secret identity. I would appreciate it if one of you would tell me about the ethics of continuing to run this blog while I am a candidate or should I get elected.

To Gray--

Thank you for being my cheerleader-in-chief.

Bert Berlin

Monday, April 21, 2008

Costly Government

David Ress’ cover article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday,
Elected mayor comes at a price, reports that the costs of doing government in Richmond have increased considerably since we instituted our new elected-mayor form of government. Mr. Ress indicates that the change to our current government model has costs the taxpayers in the city “at least $13.4 million.” Further, the annual cost of running the executive branch has increased from $1 million per year to $2.8 million per year and that of the legislative branch from $1.8 million per year to $3.4 million.

I praise Mr. Ress and the TD for doing this excellent bit of investigative reporting. The report leaves a few questions unanswered about exactly how and why we are spending more money these days, but I assume that Mr. Ress or one of his reporter colleagues can fill in the details in the next few days.

It’s probably not unreasonable to expect that costs would go up between 2004 and 2008, the years that Mr. Ress’ story covers. Further, we should have expected that the transition from one system of government to another would cost us some one-time expenditures. However, the increases revealed by Mr. Ress are in excess of reasonable.

According to Mr. Ress, Mayor Wilder “and his spokesman” did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the story. However, the city’s chief financial officer, Harry Black, is quoted by Ress as saying,

If you look at the city’s budget of the past several years, you’ll find that Richmond’s spending reflects the trend of staying with the inflation rate of around 2 to 3.8 percent over recent years, and that is below the norm of about 5 percent for most localities.

Mr. Ress does not indicate whether or not Mr. Black’s statement is true. Unfortunately, over the years I have lost all confidence in Mr. Black’s ability to accurately state the facts. Unless somebody else verifies it, I’m not prepared to accept his assertion that the costs of running Richmond have risen less than the costs of running governments in “most localities.”

But, my major problem is the reaction of members of City Council to Mr. Ress’ story. None of the three members that Mr. Ress spoke with accepted the slightest responsibility for the increase in city spending. Ress reports City Council President Bill Pantele as saying, "There's an enormous layer of costs that have been incurred as a result, really, of the mayor's approach to governing the city," Mr. Pantele claims that most of the City Council’s increased spending has resulted from Mr. Wilder’s refusal to allow his staff to do tasks necessary for the council to do its job. Councilwoman Ellen Robinson, chair of the council’s finance committee, is reported as saying that the increased costs are a result of the confrontations between the mayor and the council. She said that these costs would not be necessary if the executive and legislative branches of city government worked together. She also blamed the increases in the council’s spending on a lack of cooperation from top administration officials which forced the council to beef up its staff, to get information and analysis that officials under the former government provided routinely. Councilwoman Kathy Graziano also blamed the mayor. According to Mr. Ress she said, "It's particularly amazing because when we elected a mayor, we thought we were trying to reduce spending. I think I'd just say what the mayor does: It's a matter of necessities not niceties, and it looks to me like we have too many niceties."

What Mr. Pantele, Ms. Robinson and Ms. Graziano fail to talk about is that each of them has been on City Council at least as long as Mr. Wilder has been mayor. Each of them has participated in approving at least three of Mr. Wilder’s annual budgets. Therefore, they, along with the rest of the council, have appropriated all the funds that have been used to cover the increased costs of doing government under the Wilder regime. They have had the opportunity to refuse to appropriate funds for the Richmond government that they considered wasteful but have not made that choice.

Our City Charter grants to the City Council all powers of the city except those assigned to the mayor or the chief administrative officer. Section 4.02. The two powers that the charter clearly does not reassign to another officer of government are the powers to enact legislation through the passage of ordinances and the power to oversee the operations of the whole city government. As do must legislatures under our American system of government, the City Council has the “power of the purse” in Richmond. This means that none of the city’s revenue can be spent by anyone unless it is first appropriated by the City Council.

Further, we as citizens have a right to know that our tax money is being properly spent. Certainly the City Auditor has a role in assuring proper use of public funds. However, the auditor’s office, under funded and understaffed, cannot do everything. The City Council must perform its oversight function. The council needs to constantly review the operations of all city departments and offices to make sure that our money is being used efficiently and lawfully. The council must be proactive in weeding out wasteful spending. It cannot merely sit around and wait for a diligent reporter like Mr. Ress to do its job for it.

So, if the cost of operating the government of Richmond has increased significantly over the years of our new charter, members of the City Council should not be looking only at the mayor to blame. Rather, they can see a big part of the problem by simply looking in a mirror.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Patrick Henry Charter School?

I see the small white signs posted all along Semmes and Forest Hill avenues south of the river. Some are on private property; others appear on property owned by the public. The red lettering on the signs reads “Patrick Henry Charter School…NOW!” It is clear from the number of signs I see that there are quite a few people in my greater neighborhood that are demanding this Patrick Henry thing.

What, you may ask, is this Patrick Henry thing?

A group of city residents living south of the James River have banded together to form the Patrick Henry School Initiative. The purpose of the Initiative is to operate a public charter school in the building at the intersection of Forest Hill and Semmes avenues that formally housed the Patrick Henry Elementary School. Partly in response to prodding from the mayor to close small, inefficient public schools, the School Board decided to close the Patrick Henry School about two years ago.

Maven, I think I know what a charter school is, but what exactly is a public charter school?

Under state law, a public charter school is defined as
“a public, nonreligious, or non-home-based alternative school located within a public school division.” Virginia Code, section 22.1-212-5.B. The purpose of a public charter school is to

(i) stimulate the development of innovative programs within public education; (ii) provide opportunities for innovative instruction and assessment; (iii) provide parents and students with more options within their school divisions; (iv) provide teachers with a vehicle for establishing schools with alternative innovative instruction and school scheduling, management and structure; (v) encourage the use of performance-based educational programs; (vi) establish and maintain high standards for both teachers and administrators; and (vii) develop models for replication in other public schools.
Section 22.1-212.5.A.

A public charter school is required to be open to all students residing within the school district (in this case, the City of Richmond) subject to a lottery on a space-available basis. Section 22.1-212.6.A. A public charter school is to be operated by a management committee "composed of parents of students enrolled in the school, teachers and administrators working in the school, and representatives of any community sponsors," and shall operate under a charter contract between the committee and the School Board. Under the contract, the charter school may operate "free from specified school division policies and state regulations." However, it is still subject to state Standards of Quality, including SOLs and Standards of Accreditation. Section 22.1-212.6.B. A public charter school receives public funding.

The Patrick Henry School Initiative has applied to the Richmond School Board for the privilege of operating a public charter school in the Patrick Henry building. That application is still pending, although there is some indication that the board will soon decide on whether or not to grant the charter.

Last year, when I first found out about the Patrick Henry Initiative, I publicly opposed it. In a posting on the website of Friends of Fourth District Schools, I concluded that

Since I believe the purpose of the Patrick Henry Initiative is not to test new educational methods but rather to undo the decision of the School Board to close Patrick Henry, I must oppose the Initiative.

Time passes, things change and people can change their minds. So, several weeks ago I decided to reexamine my thinking on the Patrick Henry Initiative. I have engaged in an electronic conversation with those who are advocates for the Initiative. I have listened to arguments from my friends.

Here is where my thinking stands today:

1- I am still generally opposed to charter schools. I think that charter schools, as well as school vouchers, are weapons being used by those who (for their own reasons) are trying to destroy public education in this country. Further, in looking at the experience of the District of Columbia, which has been a fertile ground for the growth of charter schools, I see that on the whole charter schools are not consistently better than public schools. Although there certainly are charter schools whose students out-perform students in public schools, there are also many charter schools whose students perform worse than public school students.

2- I still think that charter schools divert both energy and funding from the task of improving public schools. As I said in an e-mail to an advocate for the Initiative, "I have great respect for the work that your members have done. I only wish that they had invested as much time and energy into working to fix our public schools." Our main task in this city must be to provide a first-class education to all the students in all of our schools. If a charter school is to serve as merely a life boat for the few, while the remainder of our children “go down with the ship,” I must oppose it.

Since last year, however, things have changed:

1- Last year, the proponents of the Initiative were selling their charter school as a neighborhood school. Apparently unaware of the state requirement that public charter schools must be open to all students in a school district, the Initiative indicated that it intended to give preferential enrollment privileges to students living within a mile of the school. Children living outside that circle were to be admitted only if there was room. Now, the proponents of the Initiative have made it clear that admission will be "[o]pen to any elementary age Richmond City child with no admissions criteria." I have also been assured by an advocate for the Initiative that all children in the City will have an equal chance to be admitted to the school.

2- Since last year I have become more and more concerned about the city’s continuing loss of its middle class. I consider the fact that middle class families leave the city when their children reach school age to be a real danger to the future of Richmond. See An Open Letter to Doug and Jackie and Paul and Bill and . . . The city residents who have worked on the Patrick Henry Initiative have put in long hours and great energy in formulating their plan. I fear that if the School Board does not approve the Patrick Henry application, many of these parents will join the long list of those abandoning the city to find greener educational pastures in the boonies.

3. The Patrick Henry Charter School will, if approved, institute several innovative (for Richmond) features.

a- First it will use a modified year-round schedule. Although I have seen year-round scheduling attempted (with no improvement in student performance) in a Fairfax County public school, year-round scheduling will be new to Richmond. Rather than having an extended summer vacation, year-round scheduling is based on four learning periods separated from each other by only a few weeks. The Patrick Henry Initiative defines this as a “progressive quarter” schedule.

b- Second it will require as a condition of enrollment that parents sign a contract requiring them to participate in the education of their children. I think that experience has shown that students whose parents participate in their education learn better and achieve more in school. However, I am concerned that the requirement of parent involvement might preclude some less-affluent students from applying for admission to Patrick Henry.

The Initiative website states that

We are sensitive to parent's time constraints and will work with them to fit their involvement into their schedule either by allowing them to do something for the school at home and log their hours, or allow other family members to donate their time on the parent's behalf. We will do everything we can to help a parent who really makes an effort to be involved, but for whatever reason falls short of the required time.

Further, the advocate for the Initiative with whom I have been conversing has told me:

We are fully aware that the parental involvement policy will not work for all children, as some have foster parents, some live with grandparents, etc.... So we changed the name of the contract to "family commitment." Since this is a key component of the schools success, it will be enforced. However we have discussed that if a child is performing well, but the parents do not comply with the contrat [sic], the child may still be eligible to attend. The school will be flexible as it can be, while still maintaining its core objectives.

Despite these assurances, the managing committee of the Initiative must take care to assure that its parental involvement policy does not deprive children from low-income families of the opportunity of attending the Patrick Henry School.

c- Third, it will use an interdisciplinary approach to learning. As explained on the Initiative’s website:

The different disciplines of learning will intermingle and students will learn how each subject relates to another and the practical applications for the information. Currently many schools teach each subject individually and children are required to learn in the abstract (Math is an excellent example) or students learn different subjects without drawing any apparent connection.

Interdisciplinary approaches to learning have proved very successful, especially in schools participating in the International Baccalaureate programs.

So, Maven, what have you decided?

Having gone through this analysis, I am still torn. I know that there are people in Richmond, whose opinions I highly respect, who will see the School Board’s approval of a charter school proposal as a further action separating our students into two classes of schools. As a dedicated supporter of high quality public education for all our students, I am concerned about the effect of diverting resources to a charter school, even if it is a public charter school. However, after looking at the Patrick Henry Initiative one year later, I see features that will benefit all the students of the city. For one thing, enrollment at Patrick Henry will be open to all children in Richmond. In addition, the Initiative will be trying some innovations that, if successful, can be used by the city’s public schools.

On balance, I think the School Board should approve the Patrick Henry Initiative. There is enough good in the Initiative proposal to merit the gamble. Under the law the board has the authority to put conditions in the charter contract that will protect the interests of all the children of our city. I would recommend, for example, that the board build into the charter requirements that assure that notice of and applications for admission to the school be widely disseminated throughout the city, and that the lottery for admission be operated fairly without preference being given to children living in the Patrick Henry neighborhood. I would also like to see a requirement that the school’s parental involvement policy not result in worthy students being excluded from the school.

Of course, if the board has some doubts about the proposal, it can approve the application for a period shorter than the statutory maximum of five years. Also, if the Patrick Henry Initiative does not succeed the Board has the power under the law to revoke the charter if the charter school

1. Violates the conditions, standards, or procedures established in the public charter school application;
2. Fails to meet or make reasonable progress toward achievement of the content standards or student performance standards identified in the charter application;
3. Fails to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management; or
4. Violates any provision of law from which the public charter school was not specifically exempted.
A charter may be revoked if the local school board determines, in its discretion, that it is not in the public interest or for the welfare of the students within the school division to continue the operation of the school...

Section 22.1-212.12.B.

So, I recommend that . . .

Maven, wait! Don’t put the final period on this posting. Don’t you realize that by changing your mind on this issue someone may accuse you of waffling?

Dear reader. I don’t understand why changing one’s mind should be seen as a sign of weakness. To me, someone who sticks to his position even when it is clearly wrong is a fool. I would much rather be accused of being a waffler than be known as a fool.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Accountability and the Mayor

I am disappointed that the editors of the Times-Dispatch have approved of the double standard that is being applied to former Richmond director of emergency management Benjamin Johnson and Mayor Doug Wilder. As I pointed out yesterday, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Wilder each accepted from the city both a monthly car allowance and the use of a city-owned car, double perks to which they were not entitled. Mr. Johnson lost his job. Mr. Wilder gave the excuse that he didn’t know how much compensation he was receiving and, as of this morning, is still occupying the mayor’s office at City Hall. The TD editors justify the difference in outcomes in this language:

Indeed, if resignation defines the proper response to incidents of this nature, then a double standard becomes inevitable. A mayoral departure would send this city into crisis. Chief executives are usually held to different standards.

The TD editors conclude that the only check on a rogue chief executive’s disregard for the law is the ballot box.

The citizens of Richmond are entitled to accountability from all their elected and appointed city officials and employees. They have a right to expect that no public official is considered above the law. Yet, the TD is supporting Mr. Wilder’s behavior, which for three years has indicated that he thinks he is above the law, by indicating that chief executives should be held to different standards.

I have only one question. Why?

The TD suggests that the mayor’s resignation would “send this city into crisis.” Come on, guys. What kind of answer is that? Are you really suggesting that the citizens of Richmond must accept unethical, perhaps illegal, behavior from the mayor which they would not accept from any other city official? And, exactly what kind of crisis are you expecting? Would the James River stop flowing? Would all city owned buildings suddenly crumble? Would the police department stop enforcing the law? Would trash no longer be collected? Would the city’s public schools close down? Would those who rely on the city for support suddenly stop receiving city services?

Are you guys serious? Are you suggesting that it was wrong for the Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon because it might have sent the country into a crisis? Are you suggesting that it was wrong for the House of Representatives to impeach Bill Clinton because it might create a crisis? Do you really mean that our chief executives (presidents, governors and mayors) should be considered above the law?

The TD editors should realize that our City Charter provides for the removal of the mayor from office when his or her public behavior does not meet established standards. Section 304.1 of the charter states:

B. The mayor may be removed following the procedure set forth in § 24.2-233 of the Code of Virginia applicable to constitutional officers; provided, however, that the petition must be signed by a number of registered voters in each council district equal to at least 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last general election for mayor in each respective council district.

The standards for removal are set forth in section 24.2-233.1 of the Virginia Code as follows:

For neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties when that neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office . . .

So, despite the dire consequences that the editors fear, the law does not provide that our mayor is above the law, and provides a mechanism (other than elections) for his/her removal. Further, the City Charter tells us how to deal with a vacancy in the office of mayor. Section 304.B sets out the procedure for electing a replacement mayor should the office become vacant.

As I pointed out yesterday, instilling an attitude of accountability in all our city officials and employees requires a zero-tolerance policy. And that attitude of accountability must start at the top. As citizens and taxpayers you and I have the right to expect that public money is being used efficiently and lawfully. When an officer or employee misuses public funds, we should expect that he or she will face the consequences of their actions.

There may be factual differences between the cases of Benjamin Johnson and Doug Wilder that would justify their being treated differently. However, if our government is to earn back the trust of its citizens we must apply the same standard to all public officials and employees. We cannot allow a different standard to be applied to our mayor.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Earning the Public’s Trust

In my April 4 post,
Hey! That’s Our Money, I pointed out that the most recent audit of the operations of Richmond Public Schools has had a devastating effect on public support for our public schools. A letter to the editor from Richmonder Dorothy T. Edwards published in yesterday’s Times Dispatch supports my conclusion. Ms. Edwards’ letter indicates that she has lost all trust in our public officials to root out the “waste, inefficiency and nepotism” that plague the city’s operations. (Although Ms. Edwards’ letter specifically addresses the school audit, it is clear from her letter that it is mismanagement throughout city operations, not just in the schools, that concerns her.) To avoid you having to hit on any links, I will reprint Ms. Edwards’ letter in its entirety.

Editor, Times-Dispatch:
Your recent editorial about the Richmond school audit calls it "Obscene." What I would call the waste, inefficiency, and nepotism in the school system is "criminal."
I find it hard to believe that the city hasn't found some way to get rid of auditor Umesh Dalal. He seems to have an amazing amount of courage to run these audits and publish the truth of the corruption in our city and our school system. As a taxpayer, I thank him and hope he keeps up the good work.
Not that these major transgressions against the taxpaying citizens of Richmond, and especially the children, will get corrected -- because I don't believe they will. School Board Chairman George Braxton can assure us all he wants that he will hold the school administration accountable. In all the years I have lived in Richmond, I have heard so many promises, so many lies from our elected officials that I do not believe them anymore.
We have almost reached the point that we need a taxpayers' revolt. Perhaps if we withheld our tax payments like Mayor Doug Wilder withheld funds to the School Board, we might get somebody's attention at City Hall. Short of a revolt, I don't know what else we citizens can do until next Election Day.
I wish I could believe that just by changing officials we could clean up Richmond, but unfortunately, I don't know if there are any honest people left who would want to run this beautiful city by the James. The waste, inefficiency, and nepotism go very deep and will take a Herculean effort to dig out by the roots.
Dorothy T. Edwards. Richmond.

I wish I could tell you that Ms. Edwards’ letter was an anomaly, but I can’t. I think that her views are shared by far too many people in this city. More than three and a half years after we elected a mayor who pledged to clean up the corruption in city government, many city residents think that it’s still business as usual in River City.

Ms. Edwards says she has heard too many promises and just doesn’t believe public officials any more. That Ms. Edwards has come to this view is tragic. In our republic, public officials can only govern if they have the trust of the electorate. If people in this city feel that they can’t trust their elected and appointed officials, Richmond is in worse trouble than I thought.

Dear reader, how do our elected and appointed officials gain back the trust of our citizens? It seems clear from Ms. Edwards’ letter that words alone are not enough. I think that our officials must act (and do so quickly) to assure Richmond taxpayers that their money is being used lawfully and efficiently. Our officials must demand accountability from all public employees including themselves. Just as Richmond Public Schools has a zero-tolerance policy with respect to certain misbehavior by students, our city government (including the schools) must have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of public trust. And this policy must apply to all public employees from the mayor on down.

In the future, we cannot tolerate a situation in which different standards are applied to the same behavior. For example, this week Mayor Wilder accepted the resignation of Benjamin Johnson, Richmond’s director of emergency management. Mr. Johnson resigned after a city audit revealed that he was receiving both a $500 per month car allowance and the use of a city owned vehicle. Under city ordinances, Johnson was entitled to one of these perks, not both. City Auditor Umesh Dalal had called for disciplinary action against Mr. Johnson for accepting both perks. It is unfortunate that the city lost the services of Mr. Johnson. However, when it comes to accountability we must have a zero-tolerance policy.

Or do we? It appears that our beloved mayor was also receiving both a monthly car allowance of $700 and the use of a city-owned car since 2005. Under city ordinances, the mayor was entitled to only one of these perks. When confronted with this fact, Mr. Wilder said that he was unaware that he had been receiving both perks. Mr. Wilder indicated his intent to reimburse the city for the car allowance he had been improperly receiving for three years. Mr. Wilder has not submitted his resignation.

Ms. Edwards might ask, “Maven, why were Mr. Johnson and Mayor Wilder subject to two different standards? Mr. Johnson lost his job, but the mayor only had to pay back the money he wrongly accepted.”

Dear reader, I was prepared to give Ms. Edwards one of my standard satiric answers. However, this situation simply is not funny. So instead I will address the last paragraph in Ms. Edwards’ letter.

Ms. Edwards, I do believe that there are honest people around who are willing to take on the responsibility of leading our fair city. Further, I don’t think that ridding this city of waste, inefficiency and nepotism is a task that only Hercules could perform. All we need are officials who demand accountability.

As for RPS, we need nine school board members who will inform the next school superintendent that s/he will be held strictly accountable for every penny of public money entrusted to the schools. Then we need a superintendent that informs all school system employees that they will be held strictly accountable for every cent of public money they administer.

On the City Hall side, we need nine council persons who will inform the next mayor that s/he will be held strictly accountable for every penny of public money appropriated to run the city government. We need a mayor who will inform his/her staff and all city employees that they will be held strictly accountable for every cent of public money they administer.

Our policy must be one of zero tolerance. If you misuse public funds you will be required to pay them back and you will lose your job. It’s as simple as that. We cannot accept as an excuse, “I didn’t know.” As a public official it is your job to know.

Hopefully, through their actions our city leaders can gain back Ms. Edwards’ trust. Ms. Edwards and all the taxpayers of River City are entitled to leaders who will treat their public trust seriously. They are entitled to know that every penny they pay to the city in taxes will be spent honestly and efficiently.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Maven and the School Board

Well, my beloved reader Gray was not deterred by the fact that I am not as sexy as Matt Damon. So let’s get back to talking about me and the Richmond School Board. First a few myths:

1- Since the Superintendent of Schools is paid over $150 thousand per year, School Board members must be compensated at least as well.

2- Since the mayor (of course without his knowledge) and other city officials receive car allowances and other perks in addition to their salaries, board members must also get these freebies.

3- Because of their dedication and the tireless work they put in, School Board members are well respected by their fellow citizens.

Now that we’ve gotten those out of the way—

Let’s say I am particularly masochistic and decide that I do want to be on the school board. Let’s also assume that I have a neighbor who likewise loves pain and decides to run for the same seat. I have been told that it will cost over $10 thousand to run a winning campaign (for mailings to voters, ugly road signs, bumper stickers and the like). Gray, you might not realize this, but being a maven is not a paid position. To me, $10 thousand is a decent bit of change. Do you imagine that I will be able to keep my few friends if I start hitting them up for campaign contributions? Gray, spending $10 thousand to get elected to a position that only pays about $1 thousand per month seems like a poor investment.

And what happens if I win? Think of what I am giving up. Now when I meet someone and they ask what I do, I can tell them I’m the James River Maven. You should see the amazement in their eyes (or is it pain?). If I get elected, I’ll have to tell people that I am a member of the Richmond School Board. Do you honestly think that going from a maven to a school board member is a step up? Do you think it will be easy revealing my secret identity?

So why should I do it?

Maven, what about the children?

Yes, what about the children? Somebody needs to speak for the children. Even the trees have the Lorax to speak for them. But who speaks for the children of Richmond? Don’t we owe them a world-class education?

Gray, I assume that my wife will vote for me. And, although it’s not considered good manners, I will vote for myself. I don’t know whether I can count on your vote because I don’t know if you live in my district. So, I would start out an election campaign with two guaranteed votes and no money. Sounds like good odds to me. Maybe, I’ll just get me some petitions to circulate.

It’s Really About the Children

Anonymous, one of my most prolific readers, said this in response to my recent post:

I notice you're not making any demands of the parents of the children. I believe that's one of the biggest problems in education anywhere, and it certainly isn't better in the city. How about demanding that the parents do their part to support their children's education by teaching them basic manners, some sort of respect for authority, and participating by volunteering their time?

Well, Anonymous, you are obviously right. And, if I ever get the chance to play God, I am going to redesign the world so that every child has two loving and caring parents. I am going to make sure that every child lives in a stable home where there is sufficient income for each family member to have all of life’s necessities (and a few luxuries too). I will fix things so that parents teach every child basic manners and respect for authority. Of course, every child in my world will be able to attend preschool from at least the age of three and will therefore come into our public schools ready to learn. Each family will have at least one parent who will have the time and energy to volunteer at school for at least two hours every day. A parent will always be available to help each child with homework and to give them the encouragement children need to succeed in life.

Unfortunately, Anonymous, we have been dealt a different hand. Our city has thousands of children who, through no fault of their own, are trapped in a multi-generational cycle of poverty. Many times there is no responsible adult in their lives to teach them the manners and respect you say they should have. They don’t have a parent who has the time and energy to volunteer at school. They don’t live in a family in which the income is sufficient to provide them with life’s necessities. Many of them come to school hungry because there is not enough food for breakfast at home. These are the children that Dr. Crupi talked about in his report last fall:

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 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.

We, the community living in the City of Richmond have a choice. We can find people to blame, whether it’s the School Board or the Superintendent of Schools or school administrators or teachers or parents. We can throw up our hands in defeat and say that it is hopeless. Or, we can do what is necessary to make sure that our at-risk children have the opportunity to break out of their poverty. A first-class education is probably the only chance many of these children have to succeed in life. We must provide it to them. It is a simple matter of justice.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Me? For the School Board?

A loyal reader named Gray commented on a previous entry and ended with the following language:

James River Maven, you should consider running for School Board. And I enjoy your writing.

Gray, I am so glad that you enjoy my writing. I try hard to make it meaningful and enjoyable. Hopefully, once in a while I give you a bit of a chuckle.

But, Gray, if you like me, why would you suggest that I run for the School Board? I know lots of school board members and they are always working hard and feeling frustrated. After the events of this past week, I’m sure that there are lots of citizens of Richmond who would just like to flush the whole School Board into the James. Being a member of the School Board these days is not the best way to win friends and influence people. There is also strong division on the board. There are factions working against factions. Some members are more concerned with their own agenda than with the well being of our children.

Gray, what could the maven do to make things better on the board and in Richmond Public Schools? I couldn’t even win the Peoples Magazine “World’s Sexiest Man” contest. (They picked, of all people, Matt Damon, although I will demand a recount.) So why do the citizens of Richmond need me on the School Board?

1. I would demand accountability, not only from myself but from all other members of the board and all officers and employees of Richmond Public Schools. Working for the citizens of Richmond is a privilege, not a right, and everybody who is enjoying that privilege must meet the highest standards. We most be proactive in protecting the taxpayer’s money; we can’t just sit around waiting for the next audit.

2. I would demand excellence from all our students. We have been too tied up in meeting SOL and No Child Left Behind standards. These Commonwealth and federally imposed standards only require our students to pass. Our students must be striving for A’s, however, not just for C’s. We must subject our students to more stringent course requirements; we must abandon the idea that somehow Richmond students are incapable of excelling.

3. I would demand excellence from our teachers and administrators. Our students deserve the best. When necessary we must retrain our teachers in modern and effective teaching methods. We should recognize those teachers who are doing the best job and work with the others to bring them up to our high RPS standards.

4. I would demand that the members of the board treat each other with respect. I certainly expect that intelligent, caring people will have differences of opinion. However, the citizens of Richmond have a right to expect that their elected officials will act like adults.

So, Gray, with that kind of agenda would I do well on the School Board? Would I even be elected? Many voters expect candidates that know all the answers and will promise to fix everything. Gray, I have lived long enough to know that I don’t have all the answers. I also will not make promises that I cannot keep. The only promise I would make to the taxpayers is that I would do everything I could to make RPS a school system we can be proud of. RPS must provide all children in the city a world-class education. RPS must become such an excellent system that parents will move from the suburbs to the city to get their kids into our schools. Gray, to become a great city, Richmond must have great schools

Friday, April 04, 2008

Hey! That’s Our Money!

For a good part of my career as an attorney for the Federal Government I taught a course called “Principals of Appropriations Law.” I taught the course to other lawyers, to budget officers, to procurement officers, to contracting officers and to myriad other government personnel. In that course I taught the laws and rules governing the proper use of public money. Of all the things I tried to impress upon my students, the most important was that the funds they were administering did not belong to them. Rather, these funds belonged to the taxpayers. It was crucial, therefore, that they only use these funds for authorized purposes and in authorized ways.

Well, after reading the Executive Summary and skimming carefully through the rest of the City Auditor’s latest report on the purchasing and accounts payable functions of Richmond Public Schools, it is apparent to me that there a whole bunch of people working for RPS who need to take the course. The report found many weaknesses in the RPS procurement and bill paying mechanisms. It made 102 recommendations on how RPS could improve these functions and eliminate wasteful spending. (If you want to look at the report, you can download it from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. However, unless you’re a real lover of audit reports or a masochist, I would recommend that you only read the
Executive Summary).

On the evening news last night I watched Superintendent of Schools Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman discussing the audit report. As quoted in the TD this morning, Dr. Jewell-Sherman likened the audit report to a returned graduate school paper. “In graduate school, if you are going to get less than a B on a paper, your professor hands it back and says: redo. This is a redo.”
Schools audit sparks calls for change I understand the superintendent’s desire to put the proper spin on the auditor’s findings. I also understand that the purpose of an audit is to help an organization recognize and fix its shortcomings. It is not intended to be an indictment. However, there is a certain lack of accountability in the superintendent’s statement that bothers me. I would have much preferred “We blew it. I am responsible. We will do better in the future.” Calling the audit report a “redo” shows a lack of appreciation for the fact that a lot of taxpayer money was wasted by the weaknesses in RPS’s operations.

Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s statement also fails to recognize the devastating effect this audit report has on the already weak public support for Richmond Public Schools. The superintendent needs to look at the public comments last night on the TD’s first story on the audit report.
Auditor blasts Richmond school system There are five pages of comments and most of them are quite negative.

In a recent post (
You Got Trouble Folks! Right Here In River City) I reiterated my five principals for repairing Richmond Public Schools: 1-Treating all students as if they were our own; 2- demanding excellence from all our students; 3- Holding our teachers accountable for their students’ learning; 4- responsible budgeting; and 5- accountability. In talking about accountability I indicated that the voters of Richmond should hold both the City Council and the School Board accountable for the operation of our public schools. I said that the School Board must hold the superintendent accountable for the day to day operation of the schools. I concluded with “Every person who has authority to spend school funds must be held strictly accountable for the money they spend.” I see now that that last sentence didn’t go far enough.

In a subsequent post (
A Watchdog with Teeth) I quoted from the Government Auditing Standards in setting forth the accountability of public officials or employees in dealing with public funds. In short, those entrusted with handling public resources are:
1- responsible for applying those resources “efficiently, economically, and effectively” for the purposes for which the resources were provided;
2- responsible for complying with applicable laws and regulations;
3- responsible for establishing and maintaining effective controls to ensure that the funds are properly and efficiently used; and
4- accountable to the public for the resources provided to carry out government programs and services.

The School Board and the Superintendent of Schools need to regain public confidence in Richmond Public Schools. They must establish an atmosphere of accountability throughout the school system. They must teach every employee that s/he is personally responsible to the taxpayers for the way s/he uses public resources. They must establish a system of internal controls in RPS that greatly reduces the possibility of misuse of funds. They cannot allow mismanagement in operations to cloud what is the real mission of Richmond Public Schools—to provide a world-class education to every child in the city.