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Business Leaders Pledge Help to Improve City Schools

Business Leaders Pledge Help to Improve City Schools

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  • Editor's note: The following letter was sent by 26 Richmond business leaders on August 3 to Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and members of the Richmond City Council. It is commented on editorially today.

Dear Mayor Wilder, President Pantele, and Members of Richmond City Council:

We are writing today to offer our assistance as you work to establish the City of Richmond as a leading Virginia and American city. We represent a significant majority of the largest employers in the Metro Richmond area. All of us are proud of the recent momentum this city has achieved, and of the future plans envisioned for the arts, sports and recreation, and development along the river, including retail space and housing.

Dramatic progress is being made in many areas. Reported crime rates have fallen each year since 2004. 2007 may yield the best statistics in decades. After years of decline, population in the city increased in 2006 over 2005, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Cranes are visible all over the downtown area with new residential communities, a new Federal Courthouse, hotels, major new corporate buildings led by Philip Morris and MeadWestvaco, as well as renovation of the Carpenter Center, the National Theater, and plans for the Landmark.

On the recreational front, plans have been announced to renovate or build a new Diamond, a new natatorium, a new indoor tennis facility for VCU along with new dormitories and a combined Engineering and Business School Complex. The VCU Medical Center is a hive of new construction. Discussions have begun for the proposed construction of a new Coliseum.

We are convinced that the city is at a tipping point unlike any it has seen in over 150 years.

ONE AREA continues to be of tremendous concern to us, however, and if it is not addressed now, will prevent the city from becoming a world-class place to live and work. This challenge is the performance of our city's public schools system, which continues to be one of the most expensive and least effective in Virginia -- if not the nation. We know that all of you, the School Board, our teachers, and your constituents share our concerns.

The educational statistics are alarming and constitute, in our view, an emergency situation that must be dealt with immediately and with bold action. A few facts stand out (based on 2004 figures from the SchoolMatters, a service of Standard & Poor's):

--Richmond spends more than $10,500 a year for each student in its system, yet less than 57 percent of those funds actually go toward instruction rather than administration:

  • Chesterfield $6,789, with 63 percent to instruction;

  • Hanover $6,791, with over 66 percent to instruction;

  • Henrico $6,801, with over 61 percent to instruction;

  • Norfolk spends $7,963 a student with 62 percent going toward instruction;

  • Petersburg $8,055, with over 57 percent to instruction;

  • Portsmouth $7,371, with 59 percent to instruction;

  • Roanoke $8,342, with nearly 63 percent to instruction.

--And Richmond Public Schools now spends more than $12,000 of its operating budget per student. So while Richmond spends the most among its peer localities, its students see the lowest percentage of resource in the classroom. These figures do not take into account the enormous amount of unused space in underutilized school buildings.

--While Richmond spends the most of these comparative locales, the Virginia Department of Education reports that the city has the lowest graduation rate, except for Petersburg [see chart "Graduation Rates"].

Similar statistics bear out in the SOL scores for children in elementary and secondary schools at all levels.

PERHAPS MOST alarming of all is the prevalence of serious violence in our schools, particularly when compared with other localities.

The state's Department of Education states that in the 2005-06 school year, there were 1,067 "serious incidents" in Richmond City schools or 4 for every 100 students. Other jurisdictions suffer a fraction of this violence [see chart "Serious Incidents"].

Recent studies indicate a concerted and focused approach to education, social services, and public health could significantly improve the lives of students who now begin their education destined to fail. Since Richmond has among the highest cost per pupil allocation of any Virginia jurisdiction, resources cannot be blamed for the poor quality of public education.

There are thousands of dedicated teachers in the Richmond Public Schools system. They are truly investing their lives in working hard to give each student their best efforts. But they will not succeed under the management and administration of the current Richmond School Board.

We have no quarrel with the members of the School Board who have done their best -- rather, we believe a fundamental flaw exists in the governance structure which cannot be solved without a new approach to leadership and accountability for the success of the schools. For example, the mayor is responsible for proposing a budget for the city administration -- but not for the schools. The City Council, with consent of the mayor, controls revenues through taxing authority. The School Board proposes a budget, yet has no control over raising revenues and, as we have learned recently, has no control over when they will receive their operating funds during the course of the fiscal year.

As a result, even the most well-meaning of public servants who serve on the School Board have little structural ability to make lasting decisions -- particularly if subject to popular election. Neither do the City Council nor the mayor, because while they ultimately approve the budget, the School Board is responsible for policy decisions and selection of the superintendent. This mish-mash of accountability is doomed to failure -- the proof is in the results.

WE BELIEVE those who have the revenue authority should be held responsible to the public for the performance of the city schools. With this in mind, we urge the mayor and the City Council to ask the city's General Assembly delegation to support amendments to the City Charter in the 2008 session that would make the following changes:

(1)An elected School Board would be abolished.

(2)A School Board Nominating Committee would be established composed of five members appointed by the City Council upon recommendation of the mayor. This committee would screen candidates much like the panel that recommends potential members of the various university Boards of Visitors to the governor.

(3)The Nominating Committee will present, to each member of the council, a list of three individuals. Each council member will select one person from the list of three who will represent the councilman's district for a three-year period.

(4)The School Board members' terms should be for three years and staggered so that three members would be appointed each year.

We believe this method of selection will result in a School Board composed of individuals who have good judgment and the required expertise to drastically reform the city schools. It will also place responsibility for the proper functioning of the schools with the elected representatives who control the purse strings -- the mayor and the City Council. All of us would know who should be held accountable for the schools.

In addition to the Charter Amendments, we urge you to proceed as expeditiously as possible with the establishment of a Math-Science Magnet School and the proper funding and administration of the city vocational training program. The skills these two forms of education will enhance are critical to the present and future needs of our companies.

EACH OF OUR firms faces a rapidly aging workforce. Over the next decades, we will need thousands of new workers in Central Virginia -- even tens of thousands.

The surrounding jurisdictions are producing better-qualified workers and a higher percentage of graduates. Richmond's schools are not producing the type of employees we need for the future in sufficient numbers.

We believe that extraordinary efforts are required to bring the Richmond Public Schools and the City of Richmond to the world-class level of which it is capable. Too many generations of children have already been lost.

We are eager and willing to work on this in a positive, productive, and candid partnership. Together, we need to send a signal to the people of Richmond that its next generation of citizens will be successful, productive, and healthy, and that we will fight hard to make that promise come true. We stand ready to help.


Thomas F. Farrell II, Chairman, President, & CEO,


Mike Szymanczyk, Chairman & CEO, Philip Morris USA.

Richard Cullen, Chairman, McGuireWoods, LLP.

Eugene P. Trani, President, Virginia Commonwealth

University; President & Chair of the Board of

Directors, VCU Health System.

C.T. Hill, Chairman, President & CEO, SunTrust Bank,


William H. Goodwin Jr., President, CCA Industries, Inc.

John A. Luke Jr., Chairman & CEO, MeadWestvaco.

Robert J. Grey Jr., Partner, Hunton & Williams.

Michael D. Fraizer, Chairman, President & CEO, Genworth


James E. Ukrop, Chairman, First Market Bank.

Thomas E. Goode, Premier Executive Banking & Richmond

Market President, Bank of America.

Thurston R. Moore, Chairman, Hunton & Williams.

Robert C. Sledd, Chairman, Performance Food Group Co.

Julious P. Smith Jr., Chairman & CEO, Williams Mullen.

G. Gilmer Minor III, Chairman, Owens & Minor Inc.

Jon C. King, President & CEO, Exclusive Staffing.

Anthony F. Markel, President & COO, Markel Corporation.

Robert D. Seabolt, Administrative Partner, Troutman-

Sanders, LLP.

Kenneth S. Johnson, President & CEO, Johnson Inc.

Clarence L. Townes Jr., Retired Executive.

Patrick W. Farrell, President, HCA-Richmond Health


Robert W. Woltz Jr., President-Virginia, Verizon


Allison P. Weinstein, President & COO, Weinstein


John B. Adams Jr., Chairman & CEO, The Martin Agency,


Peter J. Bernard, Chief Executive Officer, Bon Secours

Richmond Health System.

Theodore L. Chandler Jr., Chairman & CEO, LandAmerica

Financial Group Inc.


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