Council Throws Local Schools a Lifeline

JFK students unfurl a banner thanking the City Council for its support. (Photos by David Ferry)

JFK students unfurl a banner thanking the City Council for its support. (Photos by David Ferry)

Three schools slated to close at the end of the school year in Richmond were granted reprieve when the Richmond City Council unanimously committed $1.5 million for this school year on late Tuesday evening. Though it has not yet been determined where the money will come from, the funds will keep John F. Kennedy High School, as well as Olinda and Grant elementary schools open for the 2010-2011 school year.

The city council chamber was mostly packed with supporters of Kennedy High School, with more than 40 people speaking out in favor of saving the school.

One of the common concerns for people attending was the potential for violence if Kennedy High School was to close.

“That school has got to stay operating,” said Antwon Cloird, a longtime Richmond resident. “Or there’s going to be a blood bath in Richmond.”

Cloird noted that closing Kennedy could result in students being forced into other neighborhoods, some of which are plagued by gang violence.

“There are lines that no man in Richmond crosses,” he said. “ You aren’t going to send nobody from south side to Richmond High. They gonna end up dead.”

Fabiola Gutierrez, 17, a Kennedy High senior, said closing Kennedy would increase drop out rates.

“Richmond is not exactly the safest city to live in, so if you put kids from different parts of the city or kids in different gangs in another school it’s obviously going to cause conflict,” Gutierrez said after her prepared public remarks. “Also it would be even harder to go to school if it’s farther and you’ll study even less and more people will drop out. If you have to travel an hour on buses to get to school then you’re going to be less motivated.”

Supporters also argued that Kennedy High School should stay open for academic reasons.

“I am tired of hearing untruths about the school that I lead,” said Kennedy High School Principal Roxanne Brown-Garcia. Brown-Garcia said Kennedy High boasts AP classes and sends students to top universities.

Brown-Garcia whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

“We may not have a brand new school,” she shouted over the thunderous standing ovation she was receiving from the crowd, “But we have passion. We have pride. Go Eagles!”

Though the decision to commit $1.5 million this year to keep the schools open was unanimous, city council members said this was not a permanent solution and that alternate funding sources must be found.

It is the second straight year that the City Council has allocated $1.5 million to keep the schools in Richmond open.

Though the council members all agreed on school funding, they were not in agreement throughout much of the nearly six-hour meeting, at several points drawing boos and hisses from the crowd.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Jeff Ritterman, center, and Nat Bates clash over past votes.

In other business, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Vice Mayor Jeff Ritterman introduced a resolution calling on President Barack Obama for a new “New Deal,” similar to the one in the 1930s that created jobs for people during the Great Depression. “I think we all know that we’re in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and we need to find a way to reverse that,” McLaughlin said. “We need to move forward in a way that really advances us all,” she added, calling for a new Works Progress Administration program to put people to work.

McLaughlin said Richmond was reeling from high unemployment–city statistics put local jobless figures at more than 18 percent, nearly double the state average–and in dire need of an infusion of federal funds.

McLaughlin’s resolution drew criticism from Council members Nathaniel Bates and Maria Viramontes, who claimed the mayor had voted against measures that would lead to job creation, such as bringing a Target to Richmond.

McLaughlin clashed repeatedly with Bates, her longtime council adversary and one of her opponents in the mayoral election set for November.

“If you’re serious about this economy turnaround, a lot of it is going to have to be by the business community,” Bates said. “Yet, mayor you voted against Target which brings in about 300 employees and now you want the government to come in and provide all these jobs.”

McLaughlin defended her votes, saying the specifics of those measures would have been detrimental to the city of Richmond.

Despite the heated debate, the resolution passed unanimously.

The council also heard from over 30 other speakers, the majority of whom came to the meeting to show support for the Office of Neighborhood Safety. One resident held up large chunks of asphalt which he claimed were lying in his street but assured the city council he would return the materials to the city “where they were found.”

The next city council meeting will be at the Civic Center Plaza on September 20th at 6:30 p.m.

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