School board candidate says “read the contract”

A look into the process of review and approval of the Patrick Henry School contract and the evidence of undemocratic behavior that has recently come to light.

The following is a guest article by 6th District School Board candidate Art Burton. Make sure you read our previous coverage on the topic.

I would like to explain my concerns about the process of review and approval of the Patrick Henry School contract and the evidence of undemocratic behavior that has recently come to light. The August 27th issue of Style Weekly features a pretty controversial article written by Chris Dovi, titled “Critics Question Process Behind City’s First Charter School.” While I appreciate the spirit in which he wrote the article, the article features mischaracterizations and a superficial view of the issues that should concern Richmonders.

First, I must say that I do not oppose charter schools in concept, and no one can say that I have represented the desire to keep the community of Woodland Heights from having the school of its choice. As the legislative chair of the Richmond City Council of PTAs, I helped to put forth a political agenda called “BUILD SCHOOLS NOW” that called for breaking ground on eight new or rehabbed school buildings. Included in this effort was a charter Montessori school for Fulton Hill’s families.

My interest has always been to include the charter school concept as part of the larger building plan and get the middle class community of Richmond to support the idea of building schools in every community to the benefit of all of Richmond’s children. Do I have a specific concern for the 17,000 poor children in the Richmond public school system? Yes. However my hope has always been that we could gather around a BIG IDEA that would move the entire educational system forward. I also recognized that in my experience of addressing educational inequality issues in this city, the only time black people seem to be taken seriously is when white people are with them.

So the idea that I was looking at the charter school proposal as “an end run for affluent families intent on keeping their children out of the majority black, overwhelmingly poor, Richmond Public Schools” is wrongheaded. As part of the Build Schools Now initiative, I was looking for affluent families that wanted to create a new school system with brand new school buildings to the benefit of all of the children and families in Richmond. I have always stated that we need to fight together for better schools.

At this point I see the Charter school as one of the eight schools we need to break ground on immediately. It will probably be the first to go on line in 2010, and thus, it is in no one’s interest to see it fail. At the end of the last public debate we were promised openness and inclusion, so imagine my surprise when I receive an e-mail that lays out a political strategy to get a contract approved that speaks to anything but openness and inclusion. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Style Weekly, Patrick Henry Initiative contract lawyer, Darrel Mason, advised her clients that the school system’s attorney and acting-Superintendent Yvonne Brandon will recommend the contract for approval.

“NO ONE on the School Board has yet seen the contract document,” Mason writes. “Only the Board Chairman will probably review it prior to its being presented to the Board on Sept. 2.”

The e-mail goes on to state that the contract will be introduced in closed session at 4:00pm on September 2nd and reviewed for two hours with the intention being the board be prepared to vote in public session by 6pm. Granted my grandfather was a peanut farmer from Chesterfield, but what I want to know is: When does the school board get to read the contract?

This vote will change public education in the city of Richmond for the foreseeable future, and the idea that only one school board member will get to see this document, and the other eight members are so brilliant that they can read and review this legal document in two hours and vote, strikes me as strange. The public can not see the document, therefore there can be no public discussion of the contract. That makes a public vote a moot issue, because only a few people in the city will know what is going on.

I may be wrong but this just does not seem a wise way to conduct the public’s business. I have been told that this is the school board’s process. It seems to be a process that does not require the all board members to read and study the contract. I hate to be constantly portrayed as a wild black activist trying to burn down the chuck wagon of affluent white Richmond. I just want my school board member to get the contract ahead of the vote and read it. If it isn’t right, fix it. The Chartwell food contract cost us 1 million dollars to get out of after they failed to live up to the contract. The CCP contract requires us to build a 15 million dollar school or pay the company 5 million dollars to leave the city. If it takes a little more time to get this contract right then cool. Let’s build this charter school in such a way that maybe the idea of community groups working along side of school administrators and elected officials to build the schools of community choice can be used elsewhere in Richmond as well.

Finally, I do not believe that how we proceed on this matter should be left up to the prerogative of the school board Chair or any one person. This is a community issue. The issue of building a new school system comes with great promise and concern. Let’s see the contract; or better still, let our representatives see and read the contract. That is their job, to represent my community, to build new schools and move us all forward.

So, for the record; I will publicly state again; I am for building eight to ten new school throughout all Richmond’s communities. I am for a process that includes all communities. I want inclusion and openness and yes, debate. I want the 17,000 children included in so that maybe we can reduce poverty and save this city. I want all of my elected leadership to READ THE CONTRACT and on September 2nd be prepared to debate and vote. Hopefully at the end of the day we will be settled on one new school and can turn our attention to the other eight we need to build for the rest of the city.

Art Burton is a community activist and candidate for School Board in the 6th District.

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