Regionalism


“I don’t see where that helps a school by combining a school district.” – Robert Setliff, chairman of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors [VIA]

Seriously? Well, perhaps Chairman Setliff needs to read the article in which he was quoted. There he’ll see some research referenced which clearly refutes his baseless claim:

Federal studies show that school systems with more than 50 percent of students reliant on free lunch programs simply do not succeed, Cowles [Executive Director of Richmond-based Initiatives of Change] says. Considering the overwhelming number of city schools that face such a scenario, he says, “the city can’t address it alone.”

So does Chairman Setliff not know that poverty is concentrated in one jurisdiction in our region?

Does Chairman Setliff not know about education research that shows that concentrated poverty has an adverse affect on student academic performance?

Does Chairman Setliff not know how suburban Richmond-area counties actively prevent affordable housing from being built through zoning laws, thus continuing the economic segregation which keeps some jurisdictions saddled with high poverty levels?

Either he doesn’t know these things- and should therefore not be publicly commenting on what helps schools, or he does know these things- and is claiming ignorance in order to prevent change which would benefit our most educationally disadvantaged children.

Either way, it’s a striking statement of ignorance from a highly-place suburban official.

Let’s hope other officials will at least acknowledge the disadvantage created by our unique county-city divisions, even if they don’t intend to change them. Because statements like this obscure the real issue- children are not being served by our current school systems.

According to today’s TD, and the people they’ve interviewed, the Richmond-area education system is a shining example of regional cooperation, “If there’s a regional cooperation model to follow, education leaders say it’s theirs.” School leaders in Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover call efforts “very successful” and “healthy.” Richmond-area schools are the best – at cooperating with each other.

Examples celebrated include substantial achievements, such as Maggie Walker’s Governor School, and pedestrian ones, like matching spring break schedules.

Call me an idealist, or overly critical, or whatever you want, but I’m not impressed. I don’t care how many regional projects we have, as long as the purpose of our education system- children’s educational achievement – does not meet with the same success across the region, then there’s nothing to celebrate.

When the city is saddled with huge concentrations of poverty due to other jurisdictions’ refusal to build affordable housing, how can we celebrate regional cooperation?

When counties are actively promoting fear of the city, by, for example, fighting and refusing bus service because it will give “dangerous” people access to the county (which Chesterfield and Hanover both do), how can we celebrate regional cooperation?

When politicians publicly claim their superiority over other regions, as Henrico Co. manager Virgil Hazlett recently did, how can we celebrate regional cooperation? Hazlett said, “We are the community of choice. Our school system is second to none.” [“Henrico board refuses to fund Varina project,” TD, May 9, ’07 – no longer available on-line];

When there is an enormous achievement gap between children in different jurisdictions, how can we celebrate regional cooperation?

The only reason to celebrate is if you have a stake in maintaining the status quo- which it’s obvious that the counties do since the current system works to keep poor kids out of their schools.

Kudos go to Richmond School Board Chair, Braxton, who urges the region to think about a regionally merged school system. Of course the idea faces intractable opposition from those who like things the way they are:

“[A]ny push toward a regional school system would be left to future generations, Hanover’s [superintendent] Roberson said. ‘I truly believe there’s a healthy level [of regional cooperation] right now, but future opportunities to cooperate regionally are limited only by the imagination.'”

Bottom line, as long as things are working for me and my people, I won’t change. Apparently, we’re happy to let kids suffer from a dysfunctional school system that segregates kids along economic and racial lines, hindering many from achieving their full potential.

That’s not what I’d call “healthy” and “successful.”

Could Richmond soon annex Henrico and/or Chesterfield land? Maybe we could take Willow Lawn, or wait until Chesterfield redevelops Cloverleaf, then we can take that too.

Don’t count on that happening, but Gov. Kaine may have cleared the way for the possibility.

Currently cities are forbidden from annexing land from neighboring counties. As I understand the history, originally cities were able to annex county land to keep residential and commercial properties within city limits, and to keep counties rural. For various reasons (some blatantly racist), this policy was changed and cities were prohibited from growing physically. (Corrections anyone?)

During this legislative session, a republican-authored bill passed both the House and the Senate to extend the ban on annexation to 2020. The Times-Dispatch reports that Kaine vetoed this bill (they really buried this info, there’s one paragraph about it near the bottom of the page). The full text of the bill is available at Richmond Sunlight (who says Kaine vetoed this in February- is the TD really far behind or is that date incorrect?).

So what’s the benefit of annexation? Usually increasing tax revenue. It allows cities to expand their tax base by taking vacant, commercial, or industrial land. Residential properties don’t generate enough taxes to pay for the services required (schools, police, fire, roads, etc.), and local governments rely on taxes on businesses to make up the difference. Since cities generally have little or no vacant land to develop, they can’t easily correct for imbalances in land-use and the resulting deficiencies in tax collections.

Here’s a pic of Los Angeles- you can see how odd the city boundaries are:

LA Annexation

At some point the city decided it needed access to a harbor, so they annexed a little “shoestring” of land down to the waterfront.

I’m not sure annexation would be necessary in Richmond. But in some small cities it might be very beneficial. Winchester, VA, for example, has very little land to develop, and the neighboring county has built lots of big-box retail right on the city border, basically killing the downtown and taking the retail tax revenues from the city. So annexation could solve some issues there, but certainly wouldn’t be easy politically.

But it could be fun to think about annexing some of the suburbs here in Richmond. I propose Richmond takes over Willow Lawn first. I’m sure it would improve relations between the city and the county, nothing promotes regionalism like taking each other’s land!  Where do you think Richmond should start annexing?

We could be like Ohio.Dayton, OH

Aerial view of downtown Dayton, OH.

I just got back from a business trip to Dayton, OH, where I heard from many civic leaders and activists about the problems their community faces. The city’s population has fallen by half from its heyday – from300,000 to just over 150,000. They now face the prospect of losing a good chunk of federal funding at the next census when their population is expected to drop below 150,000.* In fact, the population in the metro area has not increased over the past 20 years, it’s simply been redistributed into a larger geographic area with a much lower population density. Consequently, there are 8,000 vacant housing units in the city.

They’ve also lost most of their industry, as all of the industrial midwest has, and all of their Fortune 500 companies. The last Fortune 500 company to leave Dayton was MeadWestvaco. Oops… It made me realize that every corporate relocation to Richmond is a loss for others.

Many people I spoke with thought regional cooperation would help solve many of the area’s problems- everything from improving education, to preserving farmland, to saving money by not duplicating services, to preventing the deterioration of aging infrastructure in older areas.

However, there are daunting barriers to regional cooperation there. While I often lament the problems of Virginia’s independent cities structure, my visit to Dayton has me rethinking my complaints.** Within Montgomery County, Dayton’s location, there are 16 separate school jurisdictions(!), each with their own superintendent, their own elected school board, and worst of all, their own taxation authority to create funding for their schools. Some school districts use income taxes, others use sales taxes, and still others use property taxes. The process for achieving any meaningful regional cooperation or integration is distressingly complex. Not only are serious technical negotiations needed to integrate the various different tax and governance structures, but there are 16 political fiefdoms which are, no doubt, jealously guarded by those who are in power. Then there’s the potential community opposition, with the explosive issues of race (the county is 76% white, 20% black, while the city of Dayton (which is a part of Montgomery Co.) is 53% white and 43% black) and class. Nevertheless, there are promising signs of life there too, with several organizations advocating for regional cooperation. Talks are ongoing about merging the county’s various 911 services, although even on that non-threatening issue, some of the county’s regions want to stay independent.

So even though I complain about Richmond, this trip showed me some specific blessings to count. As a region, our population is increasing. The City of Richmond is losing population, true, but much more slowly than many areas. We’re stealing companies from other cities. And while I don’t see many positive efforts at regional cooperation here, should we ever have leaders that decide to try, there are actually many fewer barriers than in Dayton. Oh, and we have cooler neighborhoods and our downtown is better.

*The federal government gives funds to cities based on population, with increases for every 50,000 residents. Richmond’s federal funding decreased when we dropped below 200,000.

** I will write more on the problems Richmond faces as an independent city in a future post.