Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration will request design proposals for a new George Wythe High School this week against the wishes of the Richmond School Board, which recently voted to wrest control of school construction projects from the city administration.
“We can’t legally build a new George Wythe alone, but I can get the process started. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Stoney said Wednesday during a news conference. “This is me exhausting my legal ability to do everything I can to ensure that a new school is built as quickly as possible.”
The mayor’s move is meant to expedite the construction of a new Wythe after Superintendent Jason Kamras recently told the School Board that the division’s handling of the project alone would delay the city administration’s 2024 target opening date by three years. Stoney and a cadre of city and school officials say supporters of the board’s resolution to handle its own construction are ignoring public demands for a new Wythe, which was built in the 1960s and is in poor condition.
School Board leaders who supported the resolution, however, say that the city overpaid on construction costs for three schools that opened last fall, and that the school division should be in control of its own projects. The board voted 5-4 in April to affirm its authority over school construction projects.
Third District School Board member Kenya Gibson, who introduced the resolution in April, said the mayor’s plans would “undermine school governance.”
“The mayor spoke of diplomacy, but issuing an RFP to design a school without board approval is the opposite of that,” Gibson said. “We, the School Board, are the only ones who can agree to a contract to design and build schools.”
It’s unclear what legal authority the mayor has to release the request for proposals since Virginia law says that school boards are in charge of school construction. In April, City Attorney Haskell Brown said it was within the board’s purview to take charge of school construction.
In an email Wednesday evening, Brown declined to say whether he advised Stoney or any other officials about the authority to issue the request for proposals. The School Board’s lawyer, Jonell Lilly, did not respond to an interview request by press time.
Stoney sent a letter to the School Board last month asking members to collaborate on the construction project so that it could be completed by 2024. Several members said they were interested in continuing to partner with his administration, but Stoney said Wednesday that he has not received a response.
“The School Board has to join us in this effort if we are to take the next step and open George Wythe as soon as possible,” Stoney said. “We need them at the table.”
Eighth District School Board member Dawn Page, who has constituents who attend Wythe, said she hopes to see the board collaborate with the city administration.
“I clearly understand the authority of the School Board, but at the end of the day, we have to work in collaboration because this ultimately impacts our students,” she said in an interview.
“My community was not valued in this process,” Page said of the resolution. “My community was left out of this conversation.”
Charles Willis, the president of the Richmond Highway Neighborhood Civic Association, said he was pleased with the mayor’s decision to issue the RFP.
“It is a human right to live in a safe environment as well as to learn in the same,” Willis said. “Wythe families, staff and students can no longer wait.”
Fifth District School Board member Stephanie Rizzi, who established a community advisory board for the construction of the school, which is located in her district, said she is open to collaborating with the city but thinks the school division should be in charge of the project.
“The goal is to build George Wythe, to transfer the building of schools over to the School Board, and to work together in a way that the School Board directs,” Rizzi said in an interview. “I don’t understand why the city is resistant and not celebrating the fact that maybe it’ll be a good thing. … I did not anticipate this kind of political resistance.”
During a May 17 School Board meeting, the same 5-4 majority that voted for the resolution voted against discussing the mayor’s proposal. Gibson later that night sought to have the school division host a special meeting about George Wythe. A 7-2 majority defeated her proposal. Rizzi was the only other member to support the idea.
Stoney’s announcement comes after Kamras, during last week’s School Board meeting, doubled down on claims that the school division does not have the expertise to issue a request for project design proposals before 2022.
Kamras estimated that three new construction hires, paid for by additional state dollars, wouldn’t be hired until October of this year. Kamras’ timeline also calls for a year of public engagement on the design, from 2023 to 2024. The design schematics would be completed by Jan. 1, 2024.
At the June 7 meeting, Kamras incensed several School Board members by relying on data and projections provided by the city.
Gibson questioned the integrity of the mayor’s passion for a new George Wythe at the meeting, citing campaign donations from AECOM, an engineering consulting firm that often manages construction projects for the city, and the construction firm S.B. Ballard.
“The students, staff, and families of RPS deserve better than a ‘do-it-for-the-donors’ mayor,” Gibson said in a statement Tuesday. “The democratic majority of the School Board — most of whom are RPS parents — support having schools build schools. When Mayor Stoney controls the process, what’s best for donors is the principle that governs.”
S.B. Ballard, the construction company that built the new Cardinal Elementary on the South Side, donated $5,500 to the mayor’s re-election campaign, Virginia Public Access Project records show. The company also donated $2,500 to his political action committee, One Richmond.
The Branch Group, which operates the company that replaced George Mason Elementary, now Henry L. Marsh III Elementary, donated $13,000 to Stoney — $7,000 to One Richmond and $6,000 to the mayor’s re-election campaign.
AECOM, a company the city uses to manage construction projects, has given the mayor $10,000, evenly split between his PAC and his re-election campaign, records show.
In response to Gibson’s statement, Jim Nolan, Stoney’s press secretary, said the mayor is doing all he can to hurry the construction project.
“It’s unfortunate Ms. Gibson doesn’t share that goal,” Nolan said.
When asked about the donations and the city’s procurement practices during Wednesday’s news conference, Stoney and Betty Burrell, the city’s procurement director, said he is not involved in selecting firms the city hires.
“We absolutely have a competitive process ... in accordance with law and policy,” Burrell said. “There is no opportunity for the mayor to weigh in one way or the other on decisions about which of the contractors or proposers will receive a contract.”
The Richmond School Board will meet on June 28. Jonathan Young, the vice chair of the board, said there is no item relevant to the mayor’s announcement on the agenda.