The Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) is again facing allegations of attempting to dictate important City Hall decisions from its headquarters, this time by pushing for the exclusion of certain students from the $35 million Richmond Promise college scholarship program.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, a 15-member ad-hoc committee comprised of community leaders, many of them education professionals (see members list here), made a series of recommendations for Richmond Promise, which aims to use $35 million from a community benefits agreement with Chevron Richmond to provide college scholarships for city residents starting this school year.
Using the committee’s recommendations as a guideline, city staff has been asked to craft a detailed program proposal to present at the Sept. 29 council meeting. The council is then expected to vote on the program’s direction.
Following six meetings over a period of two months, the ad-hoc committee voted on a number of policy recommendations, with a majority advocating to provide scholarships for all Richmond and North Richmond residents regardless of whether they attend a public, private or charter school (although the vote to include charter schools passed by a narrow 6-5 with one abstention). Another recommendation awarded students $4,000 per year to attend 4-year schools or community colleges, and developed a system with certain requirements that ensures students maximize other scholarship and grant opportunities. Read a summary of the committee’s recommendations here.
Despite the full committee’s recommendations, two of its members crafted dissenting opinion letters that advocated for a limited scholarship program that excludes certain residents. One of those dissenting opinions came from RPA leader Mike Parker, who was selected to the ad-hoc committee by Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, a fellow RPA member. Each of the six councilmembers were allowed to choose one committee member.
Parker spoke during public comment Tuesday about why his ideas (read his ideas here) should override those from the 15-member committee and from youth input into the program. The program, Parker says, should start as a pilot and involve a select number of schools, presumably public, and could be expanded in the future once it is more established and attracts additional funding. Parker’s ideas were immediately embraced by RPA members on council, whose three members (pictured below) represent a near-majority.
“I just want to state that I know Mike Parker presented some guidance in his proposal; I just want to briefly touch on them,” McLaughlin said.
She went on to advocate for all of Parker’s ideas. Moments later, Councilmember Eduardo Martinez, another RPA member, echoed McLaughlin’s position.
“I really do believe we need to start small,” Martinez said. “We need to start with a pilot program.”
McLaughlin then insisted that Parker’s proposal be “addressed in whatever format by city staff” at the Sept. 29 council meeting.
Councilmember Nat Bates accused the RPA of attempting to “sabotage” the city-wide college scholarship program.
“This council appointed a special committee consisting of 15 individuals…. each of us [on council] had an appointee,” Bates said. “They’ve been working diligently for several months….they have come back with comprehensive recommendations. For us to take the position of one member of that committee to sabotage the whole process…is insulting to the committee. Completely insulting.”
Earlier in the meeting, Bates lambasted the RPA proposal as exclusionary and added the full-committee did a “remarkable job” on its recommendations.
“I’m extremely pleased that [the ad-hoc committee] included all the graduates of both charter schools and private schools,” Bates said. “Irrespective of where they go, they are Richmond residents and they are our kids.”
Bates also advocated for income limitations for the Promise program so that students who can’t afford college can have priority, and perhaps additional funding support.
Martinez denied the RPA was attempting to sabotage the community process.
“It is not sabotage,” he said. “It is intelligent, thoughtful consideration of something that is important.”
This is hardly the first time the RPA has been accused of attempting to circumvent the democratic process. Earlier this year, Mayor Tom Butt compared the group’s current rule to “the infamous Richmond city councils of decades ago.”
“But it’s worse,” Butt said. “Instead of the majority of elected members meeting privately on Saturday mornings, members of the secret RPA steering committee, whom no one elected, meet with RPA City Council members to create their agenda. These steering committee members also perform, when necessary, the critical function of subverting the Brown Act, acting as illegal go-betweens to communicate with other Council members.”