Two weeks ago, I publicly expressed my opposition to Mayor Stoney’s proposal to raise our Meal’s Tax by 1.5%, stating that it did not responsibly address the $224 million facilities plan proposed by School Board. Before we allocated funding for schools, I felt we needed a more comprehensive schools facilities plan.

I still believe that a tax increase is not the ideal first step in answering our schools’ needs. My opinion, however, has changed in the last two weeks as I learned more that our current situation has been created from a lack of other sustainable revenue options being available to fund these overdue school facilities needs. I will detail some of those below. One thing that has not changed and will never change, is my belief that the best economic investment we can make as a City is to improve our public schools. The unfortunate truth is there is no other way to meet our school facilities needs over the next five years, not even by driving a more efficient City Hall through budget cuts and trimming. This is a revenue issue, not an efficiency in our budget situation. There are certainly long-term options available in the Broad Street Corridor, the new Coliseum development, and the future plans for the Diamond area. But, those are years away from generating the revenues needed today.

At our current rate, we are replacing 4 schools every decade. With 44 school facilities, it is difficult to catch up, if not impossible. After exploring all options to solve these significant challenges, I arrived at the difficult conclusion that every other funding measure falls short of the opportunity the Meals Tax increase creates. The current $224 million RPS facilities plan is just one piece of the total $800 million in school facility needs. Unfortunately, City leaders, past and present, have not taken seriously enough the need to improve our facilities for decades.

Over the last two weeks I met with teachers, parents, elected officials (both current and previous) and other community leaders who all shed a new light on this proposal.

First, there are no perfect answers to solve a funding problem that is decades in the making.

  1. Many point to options such as the budget surplus from last year ($17m for the City, $8.3m for RPS). But, we need consistent revenue sources to support the long-term investment needed to fund construction of new schools, these are one-time sources of available remaining funds.
  2. Others point to potential new revenue sources such as the cigarette tax, which is a declining revenue source and cannot sustain the payment needed to fully fund construction costs.
  3. Increasing the lodging tax only aides paying off the debt for the Convention Center.
  4. The previous increase in the Meal’s Tax of 1% in 2005 is still supporting the payment for the Dominion Energy Center (Centerstage) construction as we are still paying off the $20 million remaining from its renovation.
  5. Raising real estate taxes puts a burden on every home owner citywide, which, while some can afford it, others simply cannot.

Simply put, many funding mechanisms are not available to the City due to State regulations that prevent any funds raised being available to be applied to our schools. In a landscape of poor funding options with short-term benefits and no long-term viability, the meals tax emerges as the best chance we have to begin fixing this generational challenge that impacts us all. I wish other measures could be used to contribute to the funding we must raise; unfortunately, they do not exist.

Second and perhaps most difficult is we must start somewhere, but no consensus exists on where. New Superintendent Jason Kamras’s 100 day plan outlines bold expectations and a peer review audit of the RPS budget. These are changes I support and ones for which we have been waiting from School leadership for some time. Jason is bringing on completely new leadership and staff, changing the vision for RPS in how we educate all children. But how do teachers, students, and parents share in the vision of that plan when, during meetings in the classroom to talk about the future, the ceiling is crumbling and black mold is growing in the bathroom down the hall?

Make no mistake: it pains me deeply to cast a ‘Yes’ vote on this measure. I stand committed to lead a comprehensive policy to make sure every penny raised through this increase goes directly to building and improving our public-school facilities and nothing else. I assure you that the use of these funds will be transparent. I believe that we must drive 21st-century, modern-government initiatives that creates a more efficient, accessible, accountable, and transparent City Hall. We must find ways to be cleaner and leaner. We must find ways to drive revenues for our budget and address the burden our taxes have placed on our residents and businesses. I also believe we must start somewhere. Over the next three months I will lead the effort during the annual budget process to find efficiencies, make cuts, drive better outcomes, and make the needed changes to be more accountable in City operations. I expect the same from the School Board.

Is this a perfect first step? No. Is the $150 million from the Meals Tax proposal enough to fund the $224 million facilities plan from RPS? No, but we must start somewhere. Our 24,000 RPS students, many of them living in low-income conditions, need bold leadership from the Mayor, City Council, the Superintendent, and School Board to support their success. Empty rhetoric and inaction has gotten the City, teachers, parents, and, most importantly, our students, nowhere.

I was fortunate enough to win the trust of First District residents in the last election and am honored to represent your interests on Council. Serving the residents and the City is a privilege, one I do not take for granted. I have done everything I can to understand all available options. I understand how polarizing the Meals Tax issue is and that casting this ‘Yes’ vote will be received poorly from some residents of the First District and from across the City. I am, however, not willing to risk inaction when I was elected to solve significant challenges, such as our crumbling school infrastructure. This is a proposal to begin moving forward in taking bold action in improving our public schools.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.