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‘Kids can’t wait’: Supporters speak for Stoney meal tax increase

RICHMOND, Va. – Mayor Levar Stoney stood outside a Shockoe Bottom eatery on a frigid, windy Tuesday afternoon, flanked by people who support his plan to increase the city meal tax in order to generate revenue for Richmond’s decades-old and decrepit school buildings.

The plan, which needs approval by City Council, would increase the current meal tax from 6 percent to 7.5 percent. The current combined state sales and local meals tax is 11.3 percent; that number would increase to 12.8 percent. It would be the difference of tax bringing a $60 check to $67.68 versus $66.78 – or 90 cents difference.

The theme of urgency to fix a failing RPS ran throughout the press conference.  Discussion over the years has indicated adamant public support for improving the outdated school system, but funding has long been a more contentious subject.

School Board members told CBS 6 falling ceiling tiles, and overcrowding in schools is just some of what they’ve been dealing with in Richmond.

The mayor was joined Tuesday by a city council and school board representative, as well as former state Senator Henry Marsh and his daughter, and restaurant owner Shane Roberts-Thomas.

One common denominator among all, except for the mayor, was that they came up through the RPS system.

Dr. Cynthia Newbille, 7th District Councilwoman, who attended Wickham Elementary (now torn down), Mosby (now MLK Middle) and the old Armstrong High School, said the “single most important factor in my early development was my RPS education.”

“I see our children as a promise, but they are at risk today…because of utterly untenable, failing school facilities like George Mason, because of overcrowded facilities like Greene, our children’s wellbeing and education is at risk.”

“We are in charge with preparing our children to be successful in a global, highly technological society,” Newbille added. “That can only happen in state of the art facilities. We don’t have those in this moment.”

Former state Sen. Henry Marsh underscored Newbille’s description of RPS facilities, calling the conditions deplorable when he was at George Mason in the 1940s.

“If [since] 1940s isn’t long enough, when will we do it?” Marsh said.

His daughter, Nadine Marsh Carter, who attended George Mason in the 60s, encouraged residents to feel the sense of urgency as she called on people who have said education was a priority to speak out now and invest in the youth.

Cheryl Burke, interim 7th District School Board member, is also a former principal, parent of two kids in RPS, and worked in RPS for 38 years. She called on people to help, saying “it is time to rise up” and “take a stand on behalf of our children.”

“We speak of a beautiful city with one of the greatest assets in the world, that’s our children; our future teachers, doctors, lawyers, mayors, principals, entrepreneurs and we are denying them the opportunity to be at their best,” she said.

“It’s time we give our children what they need,” Burke added. “If you ask not, you have not.”

Restaurant owners are divided in their support of the mayor’s plan, and some have begun to mobilize. Tuesday night restaurant owners gathered in Scott’s Addition to discuss their discontent with the plan.

“In my opinion that’s a reason to not build something in Richmond, to go to one of the counties where they’re not doing that, it’s penalizing customers in Richmond,” said Mac McCormack, owner of McCormack’s Irish Pub in Shockoe, McCormack’s Whiskey Grill in the Fan District, and McCormack’s Big Whiskey in Henrico. On a $60 check in Henrico, McCormack’s customers pay $5.58 in tax versus $6.78.

Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 1, with at least six restaurants gathering to endorse the mayor’s plan at a noon luncheon held at Ms. Girlee’s Restaurant, 112 N. 5th St.

Roberts-Thomas, who owns Southern Kitchen restaurant, has a daughter who teaches at Woodville Elementary now, and who went to RPS just like she did.

“Have you actually been over there and been a part of what’s going on?” said Roberts-Thomas at Tuesday’s presser. “He has no other choice but to do it now. It can’t continue on. Because it’s not your child it’s not important? What if it was your child – so just let it be?!

“He’s making you do something, finally,” she added. “Kids can’t wait.”

Stoney’s plan estimates the tax would generate around $9 million a year, and the city could expand its debt capacity to borrow up to $150 million to fund new school construction.

“So, what we are putting forward is a responsible, a fiscally prudent plan that allows us to raise dollars to create the financing for to build schools right away, not 2025 — but we can have students walking into new schools in the fall 2020 if we act now,” said Mayor Stoney. “The future is now, no more delaying, no more waiting, no more punting.”

In October, a RTD-CNU poll indicated favorable support for increasing taxes to generate revenue for the school system. Then on election night, just one month after the poll, a solid majority of city residents voted for a referendum that required the mayor to have a plan within six months to improve RPS facilities — but without raising taxes. The other part of the referendum requires city council to vote on the plan within 90 days after it is presented.

On Monday night, at the school board education compact, with city leaders present, the mayor’s plan was met with mixed reception. Thomas Kranz, interim RPS Superintendent, presented snapshots showing shoddy school conditions — fallen ceiling and bathroom tiles, moldy tiles and antiquated heating and cooling systems – but there was not a  consensus on how to generate revenue for five new schools and renovations. [ READ: State of RPS Facilities Presentation]

Some, like 4th district school board member Jonathon Young, believe revenue can be raised through cuts and restructuring.

Young believes that RPS could find $7 million, to be matched by the city,  if they “will prioritize what matters most and reduce downtown expenditures, consolidate buildings, and invest our own dollars in new facilities construction rather than crying pauper at every opportunity.”

Stoney’s proposal must be approved by City Council before becoming official. City residents who wish to weigh in should contact their council person.