Unlike mayors in other cities, L. Douglas Wilder says he doesn’t want control over the Richmond, Va., schools. But he does want the district to improve, and he’s using his power over the city budget to try to make sure that happens.
Mayor Wilder had been holding up nearly $5 million in payments to the school system since the middle of last month, prompting a lawsuit by the school board.
The Democrat, who served as Virginia’s governor from 1990 to 1994, has been highly critical of the district’s spending practices and had hired an outside consultant to audit the district.
The mayor suggested that the school board has been careless with taxpayers’ money because it has not moved swiftly to close 15 underenrolled schools in the 23,000-student district, which serves the state capital.
“When people are writing to me on a regular basis that their real estate assessments are going up 100 percent and the people who spend those taxes pay no heed, then the Richmond public schools’ situation has reached crisis proportions,” Mayor Wilder said during a news conference last month.
Richmond’s nine-member school board voted last month to sue the mayor, arguing that he had no legal right to block the payments.
On April 6, a circuit court judge in Richmond ruled in favor of the mayor.
Since then, two members of the school board, including Chairman George P. Braxton, said they would give the city auditor unfettered access to the district’s books, according to published reports in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In a news conference earlier last week, Mayor Wilder said he would continue to control the release of city funds to the school system.
“We spend more than $300 million dollars a year for the operation of the Richmond public schools–and $71 million dollars more every year than the statewide average–where is that money going?” he asked.
The mayor said that he would release a $2.1 million payment to the district so it can cover a scheduled payment to the state retirement system. The district would face stiff penalties if the payment is late. The 2006-07 adopted budget for the Richmond schools was $260 million; 40 percent of those funds came from the city treasury.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week