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“I believe the ticket for the city of Richmond to get to the next level is through public education,” Mayor-elect Levar Stoney told Route Fifty.
Ask Richmond, Virginia’s mayor-elect, Levar Stoney, what his priorities will be as his term gets underway and one issue stands out: improving the city’s schools.
“I’m not in charge of public education in the city of Richmond,” Stoney said during a phone interview earlier this month. “But I’m raising my hand to say, ‘hold me accountable.’” He added: “I believe the ticket for the city of Richmond to get to the next level is through public education. Giving confidence to parents that they can actually live in the city and raise their kids here.”
Compared to Virginia as a whole, the city has lower income levels and a higher poverty rate. Between 2010 and 2014, median household income in Richmond was $41,331, lower than the state figure of $64,792, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Roughly one-quarter of residents were in poverty, the estimates also show.
Stoney characterized raising the quality of public schools in the city as important not only for children now living in Richmond, especially those from low-income households, but also for strengthening the city’s economy in the future. If the local schools aren’t good, he explained, people who can afford to move out of town are more apt to do so when they start a family.
“If we want to attract talented newcomers,” he said, “we can get them here. The problem is keeping them here.”
‘We Shocked a Lot of People’
Before running for mayor, Stoney served as Virginia’s secretary of the commonwealth.
The position involves overseeing an office that helps the governor appoint nearly 4,000 people to state boards and commissions. The office has other responsibilities as well, such as handling extraditions, clemency petitions and lobbyist registrations.
Stoney stepped down from the post earlier this year before he announced his mayoral candidacy. Prior to his time as secretary of the commonwealth, he worked as a deputy campaign manager for Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s successful gubernatorial bid in 2013 and before that as the executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, it was not clear Stoney would win. He was competing in a race where seven other candidates’ names appeared on the ballot, although only two other contenders proved to be very competitive by the time votes were cast.
One of those candidates was Joseph Morrissey, who drew national attention to the contest because of a past sex scandal and other allegations. He finished a distant third.
Right behind Stoney, by a margin of 1,727 votes, was Jack Berry, former executive director of Venture Richmond, a public-private partnership that works on economic development in the city’s downtown, along with other related programs and events.
Getting elected as mayor in Richmond requires a candidate to clinch majorities in five of the city’s nine voter districts. Stoney did that, precluding the need for a December runoff.
“We were polling at 7 percent in August,” he said. “We shocked a lot of people.”
Challenges in Richmond's Public Schools
Public education is not an area where Stoney’s administration will likely find easy fixes.
Virginia Department of Education figures show that during the 2015-2016 school year, Richmond Public Schools had 23,987 students. Among them, 78 percent are considered economically disadvantaged and 18 percent have disabilities, according to a report released this month by a nonprofit group, Bellwether Education Partners.
In terms of student performance, Richmond lags behind statewide outcomes on standardized assessments, based on data from Virginia’s education department.
Racial equity is another concern.
According to the Bellwether Education Partners report, 75 percent of the students in Richmond Public Schools were African American and 13 percent were Hispanic, as of September 2015.
The school system has an annual budget of approximately $350 million, according to the report, with the city providing a significant chunk of its funding.
The school system receives about $12,700 of revenue per pupil from federal, state and local sources, based on figures in the Bellwether report—about $2,200 more than the $10,500-per-pupil average for three other peer cities in the state.
But the report notes that Virginia’s state government funnels less money to Richmond’s schools, compared to the peer cities.
Richmond’s City Council has voiced support for changing the formula that guides how much money the school system gets from the state, so that it works more in the city’s favor. Making this change, however, would take action on the part of Virginia’s General Assembly.
Questioned about whether he thinks it will take more money or new accountability measures to improve outcomes in Richmond’s city schools, Stoney replied: “I think it’s a mix.” The mayor-elect said one of his first moves in office would be to create an “education compact.”
He said the compact would act as an “accountability document” and would involve the mayor’s office, the city council, the elected school board and the superintendent agreeing on what Richmond Public Schools should look like over the next five to 10 years.
Stoney said he’d also like to see expanded, affordable after-school programs, including ones that offer students a meal.
Apart from education, another one of his top priorities when taking over as mayor will be initiating a performance audit and review of every department in Richmond’s city government.
“I want to know who the top performers are, who the under-performers are,” Stoney said. “I want to evaluate programs.”
Outgoing Richmond mayor, Dwight C. Jones first took office in 2009 and won a second term in 2012. A recent multi-agency investigation has looked into whether activities and people tied to a church where Jones is a pastor were improperly entangled with city business.
Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring said last week that he hoped to publish the findings of the probe by Nov. 30, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
Stoney did not mention Jones during the recent interview, but did say he wanted to drive “a culture of accountability and transparency inside City Hall, which we’ve long lacked.”
The mayor-elect said that he expects resistance to some of the proposals he’ll put forward.
But when it comes to transforming the city’s schools, he said, he is “willing to push the envelope” even if it jeopardizes his shot at getting a second term as mayor. “The children of the city are far too important to ignore,” Stoney said. “I’m going to lay it all on the line for them.”
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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