Last week, we learned about Mayor Stoney’s plan to pursue a 1.5% increase to our current 6% meals tax. This increase, which equates to a 25% increase, will generate $9.1 million in new revenue which can allow for approximately $150 million in new Capital Improvement Project funding for new school facilities. Mayor Stoney championed the urgency to find funding for our aging school facilities as the justification for this increase, and why not?! Our restaurant scene is a huge asset in Richmond has been been a consistent and growing revenue source for City Hall for years. It is important to note that in 2003, City Council approved a 1% raise, from 5% to 6%, to support our now completed beautiful Centerstage Performing Arts Center and never repealed the addition. We have before us a request to fund an un-comprehensive school facilities plan with insufficient funds.
“If you are not for this tax increase, then you are against improving our schools.”
This statement is flawed from my perspective. I am more than happy to go pursue funding to support our school facilities needs. But I am not going to support pursuing a tax increase that is not the amount needed. On December 4th, the School Board passed a Facilities plan Phase I for $224 million to replace five schools. The current proposal is only 67% of the amount needed. I do not expect that simply providing a portion of the amount requested is going to create an improved facilities plan. I am fearful that not fully funding a plan is setting ourselves up for failure and the potential for a need to find even more money.
Our School Facilities needs are diverse & complex
We need to look beyond our existing school facility deficiencies, and plan for the future. We need to make tough decisions. Decisions that explore school consolidation, redistricting, and include new modern approaches like combining schools or K-8 models. Our city is changing and our school needs are with it. Our population growth needs to be a foundation for our plan. I want to see plans that include energy efficiency and LEED certification as well as flexible designs that allow for expansion and growth. Another challenge is that we are at least a year out from having construction ready plans for new school buildings. We need firm plans for our buildings with actual construction costs, not estimates. We also need a year by year plan and total amount needed by year to make the best and right decision. In my opinion, increasing the meals tax is only one of several options available to explore to financially support transforming our school facilities.
We need a complete plan, one that includes new construction and modern upgrades and rehabilitation. One that explores lobbying for historic tax credit eligibility for our beautiful old school buildings. One that pursues all possible funding options available (state, federal, and philanthropic) to support our facility needs. I have seen many stories about community groups organizing their own improvement projects to our existing schools to paint, repair, and clean our buildings. Just last summer, Mary Munford Elementary did a private fundraising effort to repair and replace the boys bathroom after a decade of failing to get repairs funded. I am concerned about funding a new school plans and having our maintenance fail to keep them operational. I am worried about beginning to partially fund a plan without a vision of what the next steps are going to entail or cost. Let’s utilize our Education Compact meetings to collaborate on this facilities plan, outline and discuss the difficult decisions ahead, and lay out the multi-year plan needed to transform our public school buildings. Together we can explore all possible funding options, lobby with the State and General Assembly, and other options to make it happen.
The future of our children’s education is in the balance, but we must be strategic and forward thinking. Putting a tax increase proposal to create the partial funding requested is not the answer. I will not support a tax increase simply on the merit that it begins the process to improve the plan as presented. Its time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to build on the collaborative partnership Mayor Stoney set in motion a year ago with the Education Compact to get this plan to transform our school buildings. There are cuts and efficiencies in both the School and City budget that must be explored before we pursue raising taxes or fees.