State Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After the morning bell rang on the first day of school at Fox Elementary in Richmond and the children had filed into their classrooms, four people remained outside the school.

Two people at one corner of the school held signs that read “Save Our Neighborhood Schools,” while the other two waited to approach passersby.

The small group was rallying support to leave Fox’s zoning alone, part of a saga that played out over summer vacation and an issue that the area’s Republican state senator waded into the night before students went back to school.

Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, said in a Facebook post from outside Mary Munford Elementary, another school being considered for rezoning, that he’s heard from “countless parents” at Fox and Munford who oppose the district’s potential plans to shift neighborhood lines. He said he will introduce legislation that would require additional steps for local school boards before approving zoning changes.

“These are some of the best schools not only in Richmond, but in central Virginia and this rezoning plan would have a major impact on Munford and Fox,” said Sturtevant, a former Richmond School Board member, in a brief Facebook video titled “Save Fox and Munford.” He encouraged viewers to click through a link to sign a petition. It’s unclear where that petition will go.

Several commenters on the video were quick to point out that Fox and Munford are only two of the schools potentially affected by the rezoning change. The schools also have the largest concentrations of white students in Richmond.

“‘Save’ them — your campaign is to save them for white, affluent families,” one commenter wrote.

Richmond proposed pairing majority-white Fox and Munford with majority-black Carver and Cary elementary schools, respectively.

The plan would split up siblings, complicate morning drop-off routines and null the benefits of families who bought homes in the neighborhood specifically to attend those schools, Sturtevant said, echoing concerns parents have submitted to the school system. Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras said that first wave of parental feedback “sounded eerily like Massive Resistance 2.0.”

But Sturtevant didn’t say anything about race in his video, likely a purposeful tactic to try to convince some white city-dwellers to vote for him in November’s legislative elections, said Alex Keena, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for reelection and Republicans hold a small majority in both chambers.

Sturtevant won his last election by two percentage points and is probably looking to secure more support in his district, Keena said. Sturtevant’s district voted overwhelmingly for Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine last year and for the Democratic slate of Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring in 2017.

In Sturtevant’s district, Richmond city is the most progressive-leaning enclave, which makes it hard for the Republican to change voters’ minds — unless he finds the right issue.

“If you want to get white liberal Richmonders upset, talk about schools,” Keena said. “Talk about something very, very personal to them.”

And even though Richmond’s school issues come back to race and historical discrimination, it’s a complicated subject for even the most progressive white voter to talk about, Keena said.

“(Sturtevant) is hardly the first person to talk about race without talking about race,” he said. “We see this any time you talk about rezoning schools: There’s an auditorium full of white parents who say, ‘No, no I’m not racist but I want to keep my status. … It’s hard to deny that race isn’t a part of that.”

Sturtevant wants local school boards to treat rezoning plans like a state constitutional amendment: Voters would have to approve the plan through a referendum or there would have to be a school board election between introduction and approval of the plan. The plan would have to be approved by the old and newly elected board. A draft of the legislation wasn’t available with Sturtevant’s announcement. 

“This process will increase transparency and accountability by ensuring that the public has a meaningful role in approving or vetoing new school rezoning plans,” Sturtevant’s office said in a release detailing the plan.

Several commenters pointed out that Sturtevant’s legislation sounds like an overreach and reminded him he’s not on the Richmond school board anymore.

“This isn’t your job. RPS has an elected school board,” one person wrote. “This (is) a gross overreach on your part. You are pandering.”

Sturtevant did not respond to an interview request from the Mercury.

While Sturtevant was on the Richmond school board, the body approved a controversial rezoning plan that closed one elementary school and put the affluent Museum District neighborhood into the Fox Elementary district. A parent sued the board over the plan, claiming it protected white student enrollment at certain schools. A judge dismissed the case in 2016.

“Richmond families can’t trust Glen Sturtevant to protect our public schools,” Hashmi’s campaign manager, Philip Stein said in an email.

“He was sued for attempting to secretly rezone Richmond City schools behind closed doors to benefit affluent families at the expense of others. Now he’s back to playing politics with our schools again in an effort to distract people from his record voting in lockstep with Republicans in the Senate to undermine public education funding. Richmonders don’t need a lecture on public schools; they need a state senator who will fight for every student’s access to a quality education.”

Reporter Sarah Vogelsong contributed.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to include additional information about Sen. Glen Sturtevant’s time on the Richmond School Board and a statement from Ghazala Hashmi’s campaign.