Mayor Dwight C. Jones has convened a “school finance working group” composed of area financial leaders to help figure out how to pay the tab for massive school improvements needed in the city, a task that is also being undertaken separately by a School Board-appointed group of area business professionals.
During a news conference Tuesday in City Hall, Jones lauded the members of his group for the “unique skill set” they brought to the task.
The lineup includes Matt Grossman, the chief financial officer for the Health & Beauty Group at MeadWestvaco; Jeff Hemp, chief financial officer of Philip Morris USA and director of Altria Client Services; Scott Hetzer, a senior vice president and treasurer, Dominion Resources; and Alma Showalter, vice president-tax at Dominion Resources.
“I am grateful to these companies for their willingness to lend us these valuable human resources,” Jones said in a statement released after the group met Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m asking that this group undertake an aggressive review schedule of financing options for schools needs, as I’m eager to chart a course of direction that will ultimately strengthen our school district.”
The Richmond City School Board is also studying a variety of facilities issues, including financing, and is scheduled to release a report in November.
Jones said his hope is that his group will complete its review in a similar timeframe.
Jones said he hoped the group will find creative, nontraditional approaches to fixing the city’s schools, such as public-private partnerships that could have a private contractor build a new school and lease it back to the city, and the use of historic tax credits.
City school leaders have identified $35 million in immediate maintenance needs, and estimates for renovating and otherwise updating the city’s nearly four dozen school buildings range from $100 million to $1 billion.
“We must draw the distinction between important and urgent,” Jones said of meeting school needs.
Jones also said that it’s important to keep school needs in perspective as they relate to the city.
“When we make financial decisions, we have to consider the whole population,” he said. “The needs are many. When we invest our dollars, we have to invest them wisely.”
He said the schools serve only about 11 percent of the people in Richmond, referring to the city’s school enrollment figure, and that the city has needs that go beyond fixing schools, such as jobs, paving streets, helping customers pay utility bills and miscellaneous transportation needs.
School Board member Jeff M. Bourne, 3rd District, who was at the news conference, said he was pleased to see more focus on the school system but was perplexed about the makeup of the mayor’s working group.
“I think it’s important not only to have financial professionals from the private sector, but also people who understand school construction and finance,” he said. “It could be that this is just a formational meeting and those people will be added later, but it seems that time is of the essence.”
Bourne also took issue with the mayor’s insistence that the School Board has acted too slowly in addressing school needs.
“I remember sitting in a City Council meeting (in early 2013) and saying, ‘Give us a year, and the face of Richmond Public Schools is going to look different.’ We changed the administration. We’ve closed schools. We’re working.”
School Board Vice Chairwoman Kristen N. Larson, 4th District, said she didn’t understand the need for a new group to duplicate an effort already underway.
“We’re already looking at all financial options,” said Larson, who with Kimberly Gray, 2nd District, co-chairs the board’s school facilities task force. They have received a presentation on using historic tax credits to offset construction costs, and a subgroup is investigating other finance options.
Richmond Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall and City Council Vice President Ellen F. Robertson are members of the School Board task force.
“We have representation from the mayor’s office and City Council on our task force,” said Larson. “We wanted to make sure that collaboration existed.”
Jones said it was time for the city to make a decision about schools. He pointed to a decade’s worth of facility reports.
“What we really have are two distinct choices,” he said, referencing a 2004 state review of school efficiency. “One, (we can) accept that the division spends a very large amount of money maintaining and operating very old facilities,” or “two, accept the fact that changes need to be made.”
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