Unexpected bedfellows

Common causes can make unlikely allies. Just ask members of the Richmond School Board and the hundreds of parents, children, teachers, and just plain old concerned citizens with whom they linked arms to march on Richmond’s Capitol Square on Sunday, February 21.

Common causes can make unlikely allies. Just ask members of the Richmond School Board and the hundreds of parents, children, teachers, and just plain old concerned citizens with whom they linked arms to march on Richmond’s Capitol Square on Sunday, February 21.

It is a truce that parents say doesn’t come without a whopper of a caveat.

“First we grab the [state] money back,” says Kirsten Gray, one parent adding her voice to the din of chanting marchers at the rally, “then we turn to Richmond Public Schools – the public schools are our schools.”

“Save our schools! Save our schools!” the marchers shout, hoofing up 9th Street from the old Bell Tower toward the General Assembly Office Building on Broad Street within view of State Senators who are meeting above to hammer out details of Virginia’s tortured budget.

Amidst all the good will between the marchers is a shared hope that this partnership – between local elected officials and the people who elected them — will outlast a few shouted slogans on a day when the brutal chill of recent weeks has given way to an almost spring-like Sunday afternoon.

“We’re going to expect (School Board) to be transparent and accountable,” says Gray, positive about this newly minted relationship she and other parents have found with Richmond Schools. That said, “we’re going to want them … doing the right thing with the money.”

Gray was a co-organizer of today’s event, which grew out of a parent meeting with school leaders at Albert Hill Middle School. The topic of the meeting, held the Thursday prior to the protest, was budget cuts.

Till now, most parents have focused their ire on Richmond budget planners, who have dropped programs and teaching staff like extra weight from a fast sinking blimp still filled with central office administrators who have largely been spared cuts.

But during that meeting, disagreements over Richmond’s schools budget gave way to discussion of the state’s proposal to unfreeze the Local Composite Index – a complex formula whereby state revenues are apportioned to localities according to needs.

By unfreezing the LCI – by not figuring this year’s apportionment according to last year’s data – an anomaly caused by disproportionate drops in property assessments in Northern Virginia has resulted in a net loss in funding to Central Virginia schools. In Richmond, this translated to an additional $11 million shortfall, on top of an already projected loss of local funding to the tune of $17.8 million.

By the meeting’s end, the fuss was no longer over local administrators’ proposed steep cuts to instruction, teaching staff, and special programs, says Gray, who, with parents Sarah Gross, William Bruce Smith, and Barbara Haas, began an online campaign that after just two days managed to mobilize close to 200 people to give up their Sunday afternoon for the cause. A Facebook page, the not-so-cleverly titled Metro Richmond Parents Against Cuts In School Funding, was started by Smith and currently has more than 600 friends.

What’s perhaps even more befuddling than the group’s Facebook name is that the entire Richmond School Board took an active hand in publicizing the parent-organized rally at the Capitol.

Richmond School Board member Donald Coleman stands on crutches next to the black iron fence ringing Capitol Square. He still looks haggard after a recent medical crisis that left him fighting for life late last year. In spite of his health, Coleman says being here to support parents is far too important to miss.

“We’ve been totally on board with this [protest],” says Coleman. So much so that Richmond Schools posted notice of the protest on its web site and did a robo-call to parents, encouraging them to attend.

“That’s what’s encouraging about today,” Coleman says of the swelling crowd of parents. “We all are fighting for the same things. Let’s hope we can keep finding ways to work together.”

Nearly all of Coleman’s fellow board members attended the rally. And of those not seen, Maurice Henderson was among the first to suggest and push for an active School Board collaboration with parent organizers.

Yvette Wilson, another board member in attendance, sounded like a throwback to marches of the 1960s and 70s, expressing her frustration at the perceived injustice of not being allowed directly onto Capitol grounds because of a lack of a proper permit.

“I think the parents have a right to express themselves,” Wilson says, casting a disgruntled eye toward a clutch of Capitol police walking the perimeter alongside marchers. “I think it’s about time we stood up to say ‘Education is our priority.’”

Coleman and Wilson’s sentiments have been shared quite earnestly by parents throughout the recent Richmond Schools budget process. Those parents say they tried to engage the same level of cooperation from the School Board before current crisis over the unfreezing of the LCI. Some express frustration that it’s taken this shared crisis to foster mutual understanding.

Just a week before the protest, Sarah Gross, a mom of two and president-elect of the Fox Elementary Parent Teacher Association, sits at the Starbucks coffee house on Robinson Street. She shares the results of dozens of volunteer man hours contributed by other parents who pored over Richmond Superintendent Yvonne Brandon’s proposed budget in search of possible administrative and other non-instructional budget cuts to spare classroom teachers and instruction.

Somewhat ironically, their efforts — eventually largely rebuffed when the Board voted February 16 on that budget — were at Brandon’s request. At the beginning of the budget process, at a time when it was known the economy would mean cuts “to the marrow,” she issued a public plea for help.

“We went through our PTA rolls,” Gross says, of Fox Elementary parents’ earnest interpretation of Brandon’s request. Their search yielded a team more than qualified to provide budget-cut suggestions: an Internal Revenue Service director, a variety of local business leaders and executives, a veritable host of current and former educators. The group began with various recent audits of the school system, including one conducted in 2004 by the administration of then-Governor Mark Warner.

“We said, there have to be additional creative ways to deal with the gaps,” Gross says.

Before voting on the proposed budget, the School Board had little time for those suggestions. During a budget session, School Board member Kimberly Gray was assailed by fellow board members, and by the superintendent, for asking questions related to some of the parent-suggested cost savings proposals. Proposed salary cuts to administration – including Brandon – were especially poorly received, with Brandon suggesting she was underpaid for the work load she shoulders.

Even before the meeting, Gross said she and her group of parent budget planners were prepared for – but undeterred by — likely resistance to their suggestions.

“That’s our job [as parents] is accountability,” says Gross. “I think it’s a positive accountability. We have no time to fight. The $11 million [in lost state funding] is overwhelming.”

Gross looks on the rally as a hopeful sign, but not any new assurance that parents will be included going forward.

“I did get some sense that the School Board understood that we are here to help,” she says of the rally, but when it comes back to analyzing the district’s own budget, it’s as likely that thinks will be right back to the way they’ve always been. “When the money comes back I can only hope we can maintain that solidarity, but I don’t know. Have they had some character transformation? I don’t think so.”

“They do have it in them,” she says. “Because we all stood there together.”

A second rally, again supported by the Richmond School Board as well as the Virginia Education Association, and titled Stand Up for Public Education, is planned for Saturday, February 27 at 11am.

Image courtesy of John Murden. See more images of Sunday’s rally here. To learn more about the Local Composite Index and what it means for school all over Virginia, check out our coverage from earlier today.

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Chris Dovi

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