City officials, George Wythe High School alumni and community members are calling on the Richmond School Board to rescind a resolution that could delay the rebuilding of the South Side school.
Last week, a resolution that, if binding, gave the Richmond School Board control of all aspects of new school construction passed with a 5-4 vote, with School Board members Liz Doerr, Cheryl Burke, Dawn Page and Nicole Jones dissenting.
Superintendent Jason Kamras has said that RPS doesn’t have the bandwidth to oversee school construction, and creating it would take $3 million annually. He also suspects that it would take hiring about 15 people, a process that, including onboarding, would take six to nine months. With that, Kamras feels the school division wouldn’t be able to complete construction of George Wythe until 2027.
Page and Jones at the April 12 meeting questioned how the resolution would help George Wythe, which was built in 1960, be rebuilt by 2024, the original timeline of completion. City officials say they were prepared to put a request for proposals for the design of the school out by this week.
All dissenting members except Doerr were present at a news conference put together by community members at George Wythe on Monday. Mayor Levar Stoney was also present, and said that ultimately, the resolution was a result of “petty politics” and wasn’t in the best interest for the students in Richmond.
“Obviously, the city is looking into the legality of the resolution, and at the end of the day, I’m always going to put the kids first,” Stoney told reporters. “I think we have a difference of opinion here. I think the kids who attend this school and other schools deserve schools to be built before the end of 2024, and I think it’s bad practice by the School Board to be involved in actually constructing schools. The way we’ve done it over the last few years has been successful.”
On April 12, the Richmond School Board passed a resolution introduced by 3rd District member Kenya Gibson, where the board took back its authority to oversee all parts of new school construction. Before this, city officials collaborated with the superintendent and School Board leadership on new school construction through the Joint Construction Team, approved in 2018 by the Richmond School Board.
Kamras pushed back on the vote last week in hopes to delay a vote until early May, saying there was not enough public input on the drastic change to school construction. He also said the city was prepared to put a request for proposals for the design of George Wythe this week, but now it’s unclear if the city is legally allowed to do so. Stoney said the city attorney is looking into the legality of the matter.
Gibson, who introduced the resolution, defended it.
“The Board approved moving forward with an RFP for George Wythe back in 2018,” she said in a statement. “Since then, the city had the time to entertain coliseum development and solicit bids for a bunch of casinos, but never got around to issuing an RFP for Wythe. So, how do I feel about the school board being accused of delaying the project? I think it’s unconscionable.”
School Board members in support of the resolution questioned the success of the construction of three new schools, Henry L. Marsh and Cardinal elementary schools and River City Middle School, since the price for them jumped from $110 million to $140 million in 2019, The Times-Dispatch reported. That ultimately meant that there was less money to go toward a fourth new school since the city raised $150 million through the meals tax proposed by Stoney.
Regardless, many community members say they felt that such a drastic decision to change how schools were built didn’t have enough public input, and they felt blindsided by the vote. Gibson did ask for the resolution to be put on BoardDocs , the website RPS uses to publicly display School Board agendas, on April 5. The resolution also wasn’t put on the table for a first reading.
“This resolution was passed without any community input,” said Corey Stuckey, a senior at George Wythe High School, at the Monday news conference in front of the school. “To me, that hurt my heart. How can you pass a resolution without coming right to George Wythe? It’s literally houses right across the street from George Wythe that should have a say so on whether or not the school should get rebuilt, what programming comes to the school. Even the students should get a say so.”
School Board members are finding themselves at odds with one another due to the resolution.
“I’m fired up,” said Burke, the School Board chair. “Black lives matter? That’s not the message we’re sending to our children.” According to data from the Virginia Department of Education, 49.8% and 46.7% of students at George Wythe are Latino and Black, respectively. Page, the 8th District School Board member, said the South Side of Richmond has largely been underserved, which is why there has been so much new construction.
Stephanie Lynch, the 5th District City Council member, said if the members of the board who supported the resolution can’t produce an RFP in two weeks, she’ll call on the mayor to release the city’s RFP anyway.
“I guess the School Board could challenge [Stoney], we could be in a civil suit ... but I’m not playing,” Lynch told reporters Monday. “This building is not getting delayed. You heard from the community members.”
Stephanie Rizzi, who represents George Wythe as the 5th District School Board member, said she thinks Lynch’s approach is unfair and sets the board up to fail.
“I think it’s a tactic to put pressure on us … a tactic to try to set us up for failure,” Rizzi said in an interview. “It’s unfair, and it’s divisive, and it doesn’t really respect what we’re asking for. And I think we have a right to ask for it.”
Rizzi also said she feels that the school division can better engage the community on how schools should be built.
The five members of the Board who supported the resolution say they are committed to keeping the construction of George Wythe on track.
“George Wythe High School is a priority,” a statement signed by the five members in support. They added: “After years of waiting, the School Board signatories noted below are fully committed to moving forward with George Wythe High School. We look forward to re-imagining the legacy of George Wythe in a facility that makes past and future generations of Bulldogs proud.”
According to a presentation from the Superintendent’s administration, the city has stopped working on the RFP for George Wythe High School. The mayor also declined to comment on whether or not he would fund the needed positions for RPS to successfully oversee school construction if the resolution is binding.
“It sounds like there’s members of the School Board who want to review what happened last Monday,” Stoney told reporters. “Until that process is done and complete, I’m not going to comment any further on whether or not I’m going to be providing money for schools to pay for staff.”