Patrick Henry updates: funds, friends, and foes

Despite Gov. Bob McDonnell’s sponsorship for Tuesday night’s Patrick Henry School fundraiser, the cocktail dresses and tailored suits mingling about were mostly stuffed with city political and schools leaders. They ran occasional strafing sorties on two tables of vegan-safe hors d’oeuvres, but most checkbooks stayed in purses or pockets.

Despite Gov. Bob McDonnell’s marquee sponsorship for Tuesday night’s high-powered fundraiser hosted at Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, the cocktail dresses and tailored suits mingling about as a live jazz ensemble kept time were mostly stuffed with city political and schools leaders. They ran occasional strafing sorties on two tables of vegan-safe hors d’oeuvres, but most checkbooks stayed safely in purses or pockets.

As of April Fools’ Day, school founders say the preliminary fundraising total from the governor’s event stands at around $50,000 – including the $25,000 check that McDonnell stroked out of his own inaugural event fund – far short of the ambitious $300,000-plus goal they’d set for the end of March.

“We’re obviously doing a lot of follow-up [with guests] over the next couple of weeks,” says Kristen Larson, the school’s spokeswoman, who deemed the evening a success. About 40 guests turned out for a reception at the governor’s mansion that preceded the event at the school, where she estimates 150 came out of the 250 people who’d received invitations.

“We were happy with the turnout,” Larson says.

Mingling in that crowd was prominent local developer, Robin Miller, whose past development successes have included projects that converted former Richmond school buildings like Patrick Henry into condominiums.

Also present was current School Board Chairwoman Kimberly Bridges.

“I was just spreading my wishes that their fundraising went well,” Bridges says. “The funding for those ADA issues is critical.”

Critical, but perhaps less pressing if the School Board approves a charter amendment to allow the school to start its first year in the basement of nearby Woodland Heights Baptist Church. The building is not only ADA compliant, but has a seemingly endless supply of unused classrooms all tailor-made for a small school. The church’s kid-worthiness is further bolstered by the fact that the plaintiffs in an ADA lawsuit settlement agreement with Richmond Schools approved the site in a letter sent to schools officials this week.

Bridges says she hasn’t yet seen that letter and didn’t express an opinion on the proposed temporary relocation. “With the other request for material change, we got a letter saying can you put this on your agenda for consideration. That’s what we would do again.”

Bridges says she was an early supporter of Patrick Henry’s charter – she voted for it in 2008 – and says she’s continued to work diligently to overcome obstacles to the school’s opening, which include daunting needs to bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those renovations, she says, played a large part in the district’s decision to mothball the building just a few years ago.

“If that building was easy and inexpensive to rehab for ADA, we’d still have it open,” she says, de-emphasizing what King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, and other detractors say was the real reason: White Flight in microcosm.

Khalfani has been relentless in his own disdain for the school, which he calls a throwback to everything ignoble about Virginia’s past resistance to public school integration and equal rights for black students.

“It’s been nefarious from the beginning,” Khalfani said, shortly after addressing the School Board at its Monday night meeting, which was largely devoted to lingering Patrick Henry-related matters. “I think we’re going backwards on this thing. It’s going back to being about race and class and privilege.”

For his part, Khalfani says, the state NAACP will consider filing suit to stop the school.

“We’re looking into it with the Richmond branch and the Virginia Conference,” Khalfani says, citing what he says are emails between Patrick Henry supporters that he’s obtained and that he claims show racist and segregationist designs by parents and supporters of the school.

Race seemed hardly an issue at the governor’s fundraising event.

Prominent blacks – including former School Board Chairman George Braxton and George Martin, a partner at McGuire Woods law firm – mingled with their white counterparts. The crowd, though predominantly white, was many hues, speaking to what school supporters say is proof that their efforts are sincere and aim only at reopening a cornerstone of this racially mixed Southside community.

If the crowd offered an at-least-partial answer the questions about race, it likely won’t answer any of the long-lingering questions about the biggest obstacle, financial support. Since its charter was first approved by the Richmond School Board two years ago, the school has had little success in attracting local big-money donors, having raised just a bit more than $50,000 in cash contributions in that time. The school has had more success with federal and foundation grants, so far amassing more than $570,000 from those funding sources.

Khalfani, needless to say, did not attend the governor’s fundraiser.

“The Woodland Heights people, they could have put their kids in the system,” Khalfani said at the Monday School Board meeting, accusing them instead of allowing the school to close.

Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, another advocate for Richmond school children, an early skeptic of the charter, and the current chairwoman of the education committee of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, voiced concern over Khalfani’s renewed strident talk.

If race dominates the discussion, “that would be a shame,” Pinkney-Eppes said Monday night after watching Khalfani’s speech, “because it’s really not about race.”

Rather, she says, it’s about the practical failures of Richmond Public Schools to provide substantive educations for the majority of the 23,000 or so children who attend. “If [charter schools] are about race, it appears the white folks are more knowledgeable about charter schools than black folks,” she says, defiantly challenging black leaders to see charters as a way to improve the system “instead of complaining endlessly about what the system is not doing.”

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Chris Dovi

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