Earlier this month mayoral hopeful Levar Stoney released a 10-point, 6-page plan for “Transforming Public Education & Strengthening Our Schools” (PDF). UR professor Thad Williamson, former director of the Office of Community Wealth Building and an advisor on the plan, described it to Mark Robinson at Richmond Magazine as “the first detailed stab at what role the mayor can play in improving public education, given that the mayor doesn’t control the schools in the city system.”
I recently sat down with Stoney at one of our neighborhood bakeries for pie and conversation about what the mayor can do for the city’s schools and where the money can come from.
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You recently released your plan for “Transforming Public Education & Strengthening Our Schools”. Honestly, it seems like volunteering to be the guy on point for the success and failure of the city schools of the next four years is either really brave or really stupid. Why is this first big thing that you chose to tackle?
Because the issue that I hear every single day when I’m knocking on the doors, no matter what neighborhood I’m in Westover Hills, Church Hill, or Ginter Park, I’m hearing about schools.
There are a lot of people who start their families here, and they want to stay here long term, but they all get to that age, that middle school age, and they have to make this unfortunate decision about whether they should stay here long term or move out to the counties, or put their kids into private schools. There are many kids in the city though, with 40% of our children below the poverty line, that are simply stuck.
The job of the next mayor is to, one, be the champion for public education. I’ve been the public education candidate, I want to be the public education mayor.
The LCI disadvantages Richmond more than other localities. We’re also going to do that my wrapping services around the children, whether it’s Park & Rec, whether it’s Social Services…
Okay, one of my questions… concentrated systemic poverty is a very real situation, especially here in the East End. That is the biggest influence on our area schools. Some people say that you can’t fix the schools until you fix the neighborhoods first. So if you’re working on wrapping services around the kids or that kind of thing, can we jump over to speaking on poverty for a minute?
You know my story as being the first of my family to graduate from high school. My parents were teenagers when they had me. Neither of them, including my grandmother who raised me, had a high school diploma. I do believe that poverty is the overarching issue when it comes to our public schools. I am in agreement that you have to fix poverty to get the better scores and whatnot, but I’m proof positive that you can prove the stats wrong.
Certainly individual students can, there are stellar students coming out of the worst performing schools in the neighborhood. It’s the large swath of students that need more than what they can do on their own…
I think that the Office of Community Wealth Building is a great first step for the city to actually recognize that, in order for us to get to the next level, we have got to actually eradicate poverty in the city.
Number one, you’ve got to start with education. The future.
Number two, the best support service that you can give to the family is getting that individual, the parents, the best jobs possible. In order to get the best jobs, you’ve got to have the skills to compete, and you have to be workforce ready. So not only are we going to have to educate the children, we are going to have to provide those workforce skills to the parents, too… working in conjunction with J.Sargeant Reynolds, we can do that.
We have got to start directing our children and some of our parents to jobs that some people may not think pay very well, but they actually do. To get a certificate to be an electrician or a plumber… these jobs might not sound sexy, but they pay very well.
To me, it’s about dignity. We’ve got to start telling our children they matter, we’ve got to start telling our families they matter as well. We’ve got to tell the citizens of Richmond they matter. We haven’t been doing that enough.
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What can the Mayor’s office do to have a quick impact on public schools? Fixing poverty, the fundamentals, this is a long play. If you get in, you’ve got four years – what could you set in place to make things better in two years?
Well, the first thing I’m not going to do is engage in the fighting and back-and-forth of an adversarial relationship that I’ve seen the School Board, the City Council, and the Mayor’s Office engage in. […] That’s why in my plan I’ve proposed a compact where the Mayor, the City Council, the School Board, and the Superintendent, all twenty of us agree on a set of shared goals, shared outcomes, and shared strategies. It’s been done in other citys, there’s no reason why we can’t get together around a table and say “this is where Richmond City Schools need to be ten years from now, and this is how we’re going to fund it together.”
Can you imagine the visual of all twenty of us walking across the street to the State Capital and saying “we need our fair share”?
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To loop back… you identified the issues facing the schools to varying degrees. Some, the perception that they are inadequate, to some where they really are inadequate, poverty, building needing repair, the need to attract and retain qualified teachers and administrators. Doing anything about at least the last 3 problems totally comes down to needing more funding. Where does the money come from?
I do believe that our city schools need more funding, but that’s not the only thing that the city schools need. They also need a champion in the Mayor’s Office. It’s not about just writing a check to public schools and saying I’ve done my job, it’s about someone who can partner the Superintendent, the School Board, and the City Council.
Richmond has compensated, probably overcompensated recently, for the loss of funding from the state government. We’ve lost about 15.5% in funding from the state government over the last 5 or 6 years, and that’s a lot of money. The federal government is doing their part, the city has done their part – the missing dollars, it’s the state shortchanging us and shortchanging our children.
I think it’s about time that not only Richmond residents, but residents in Norfolk, residents in Newport News and Roanoke come together and say to our leaders across the street to finally give us our fair share.
They amended the Standards of Quality and the LCI around the recession so everybody had to cut back, and a place they chose to cut and amend the formula was the schools. The formula basically says that Henrico and Chesterfield are less wealthy than Richmond. And you know that we have a social demographic that is in need of more resources in order to educate the children. The fact that the General Assembly doesn’t see that is disgraceful.
I’d rather us be battling the General Assembly, Democrats and Republicans, than battling each other. The real threat is not one another, the real threat is across the street.