Visitors to Broad Rock Elementary School on Richmond's South Side are greeted by a hodgepodge of stately early 20th-century architecture, low-budget repairs and symptoms of neglect.
Carved letters etched into concrete above the school's main entrance date the school to 1937. But even then, at the height of the Great Depression, this city school saw sunnier days than today.
The school's flagpole lists at a dire angle, and a temporary aluminum wheelchair ramp interrupts the once-handsome lines of the 70-year-old brick façade. Inside, the walls and floors are clouded by decades of grime.
Soon, this old building will be no more. Thanks to Mayor Dwight C. Jones and his Building a Better Richmond campaign, Broad Rock Elementary will be leveled and replaced with a new school, now set to open in 2013. Building the new school — plus replacing Huguenot High and Oak Grove Elementary, and renovating and expanding Martin Luther King Middle — will stand as testament to the successes of Mayor Jones in doing what his predecessor, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, was only able to stomp his feet and fuss about. It will also be a reminder of what the Richmond School Board proved itself incapable of doing on its own for more than a decade.
These school construction projects also show the ascendance of the "strong mayor" form of government, and for some — including School Board members who approve of the Mayor's move — that Virginia's elected school board law has created a toothless tiger ill-equipped to exert authority when faced with a strong tide of political erosion.
On a humid Tuesday night in June, signs of that ascendance were obvious during a parent information meeting hosted by the Jones administration to discuss budget-related design changes that have delayed construction.
In the auditorium, School Board Vice Chairwoman Dawn Page sat in the audience while a representative from AECOM, the city's contract project coordinator, and John Winter, chief capital projects manager for the City of Richmond — the mayor's man — led the presentation.
School Board members were also relegated to the audience in May, when the Jones administration withdrew its request for proposals on the two elementary-school projects, citing bids from prospective contractors that all came in above the $43.4 million that Jones planned to spend. The School Board was briefed on the announcement shortly before it was made, but members acknowledge they had no input in the decision.
Board member Donald Coleman, who represents the city's seventh district, strikes a conciliatory note in discussing his role in the mayor's efforts to build the city's first new schools in 14 years.
"I really have felt welcome and involved," Coleman says. "I think the mayor and City Council have both been fair in seeking out our input and asking for our input, but for us, it's like a child asking for an allowance."
In Virginia, school boards have no taxing authority, leaving them politically beholden to other city leaders who do — in effect creating an adult game of "Mother, May I?" when the board has to ask the City Council for its slice of the budget each year.
"It's the way things are set up that they have the lead role because they have the finance," Coleman says. "The greater question is, ‘Who has control of the school system?' when we have no taxing authority. It's for us to realize that it's the mayor and the City Council making the decisions."
But is that right? Is it legal?
Late last year, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion that suggests it's not.
Cuccinelli's Dec. 8 opinion, rendered at the request of State Sen. Terry Kilgore, was in answer to a question about whether a county board of supervisors can instruct a school board on which schools to close or consolidate. His answer would have been timely during the Wilder administration, when the mayor made repeated efforts to force the School Board to close schools.
But it also may be relevant to the current issue, because Cuccinelli also wrote: "In addition, not only is the authority for school consolidation expressly vested with the school board [by the state constitution], but also the authority to manage and construct school property rests with the school board."
Cuccinelli allows that the board of supervisors can make recommendations during the budget process, but those recommendations "have no controlling effect upon the school board."
Kim Gray, who represents the second district on the city School Board, says she's inclined to err on the side of the highest elected law officer in the state.
She confirms that she sought an opinion from Harrell and Chambliss LLP, the board's law firm, on the mayor's authority to build schools more than a year ago. Richmond magazine asked the firm for a copy of that opinion under the Virginia Freedom of Information act but was denied. Gray also declined to provide a copy but confirmed that "it was not consistent with the opinion" written by Cuccinelli.
"School boards derive their authority from the constitution of Virginia and the [state] code, and they were created to provide for local citizen control of public education," Gray says. "And it's an important part of our democracy that school boards maintain their level of decision-making over how our kids are educated."
It is unfair, she says, to assume that building a school is just about building a building, and that design is not a part of the educational policy and direction that school boards are meant to determine.
"We have schools right now that school boards of the past decided to build without [interior] walls because they thought that was a better educational setting," Gray says. "It directly relates to our policy making."
One Jones administration official close to the mayor also dismisses Cuccinelli's opinion — not because it is wrong as applied to a county board of supervisors, but because it does not apply to a strong-mayor system.
"Those opinions don't speak to this form of government," says the official, who declined to be named, but who adds that even if the opinion did apply to Richmond's form of government, it is a moot point because the elected School Board has not exerted its authority over the process.
Constitutional and legal theory aside, what is happening in Richmond is an exercise in the practical, say some School Board members, including Coleman, Page and fifth district representative Maurice Henderson.
"I kind of see it this way: The way the constitutional authority has been set up for the school district, we live under the umbilical cord of the city," says Henderson, who adds that recent history suggests the city's procurement and construction-management teams are better equipped to undertake such large projects.
"I would agree for the school district to build its schools would be preferred — would absolutely be preferred," Henderson says, but "we have not become expert at building new schools. I would not say we lack the capacity to develop proposals or bid out proposals by some in-house capability, but the question always is, ‘What is the most effective way for the city to get these services accomplished?' "