Mayor vs. School Board: It's On Like Donkey Kong

Local gadfly Paul Goldman may have been way off base on the McDonnell trial, but he can be remarkably prescient about city politics. Last year in the Richmond Times Dispatch, he warned that the honeymoon between the Mayor and the rest of city government would soon end:

[Former Mayor] Wilder was seen as too aggressive, helping Jones get elected with a more low-key image and a better “bedside manner,” Goldman said. But that will change as more power is consolidated in the office, he added.

“Ultimately, the next phase will be pushback,” he said. “In a couple of years, the council and School Board will wake up.”

Welcome to 2014.

The School Board recently assessed its building and facility needs, and discovered a hefty price tag of $35 million. And this is just for urgent needs, like HVAC systems. The Mayor's response? Call for a tax cut, and organize a panel of local business luminaries to figure out private payment options. In other words, City to School Board: Drop Dead.

This isn't the Board's fault; the new wave of leaders ushered in by the last election have been steadily gaining ground, and control, over an unruly public school system. They've installed a new superintendent, started gathering data, and basically needed their whole first terms just to make sense of the mess.

Oddly, the Mayor's allies on the Board, including his son, have been less of a presence than expected. Instead, other members like Kim Gray and Kristen Larson have been major voices pushing for accountability and sensibility. They've also inherited a dilapidated infrastructure that's been neglected and underfunded for years. The schools may spend inefficiently, but it hasn't gone to facilities; and, just at the most basic level, a school needs to have walls and a roof that works. (And not "black ooze.")

This is not a problem specific to Richmond. The American Society for Civil Engineers has been crying out in the wilderness for years, warning that the whole country is facing an infrastructure problem. It's too easy for politicians to put off the pain of needed maintenance, hoping that the bridge won't collapse until it's someone else's problem.

But the Mayor is clearly digging in, and appears uninterested in becoming the savior of Richmond's public schools. While it would be wrong to tie everything to the Mayor's suspended plans for a baseball stadium... everything is tied to the Mayor's plans for a baseball stadium, including this battle. It's hard to see where the millions needed to build a Shockoe stadium would come from if the city's on the hook for an extra $35 million for schools.

Whatever the outcome of this particular budget cycle, Mayor Jones and the current board are setting the tone for the future. Odds are it's not going to be pretty.