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Questions about school construction linger as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, council members send formal letter to school board

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Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and three City Council members whose hopes for partnering with school leaders to replace an ailing South Side high school were thwarted earlier this week say they want answers from the School Board.

In a Thursday letter, the group questioned if plans the board adopted in a 5-4 vote on Monday address challenges that public officials have cited repeatedly in the three months since the same majority opted to take back control of building schools from the city.

Stoney and council members Cynthia Newbille, Stephanie Lynch and Michael Jones say they are concerned the school system, which has not yet hired its own procurement experts, lacks the capacity to rebuild George Wythe High School on a tight turnaround.

They also worry about the board’s intention to solicit designs for a new career and technical center and elementary school “far in advance of funding availability.” The city’s capital improvement fund has $200 million set aside for school construction, evenly split between George Wythe and the career and technical center, but city officials in February estimated Wythe will cost $140 million to replace.

“It is against best practices to issue design services RFPs so far in advance of funding availability,” the letter states. “If you have sources for funding the construction of these additional new schools other than the City’s Capital Improvement Plan, we would benefit from that knowledge.”

The request came the day community members dissatisfied with the School Board’s actions took their concerns to state education officials, saying the school construction issue points to deeper issues.

“The board majority has acted in ways contrary to accepted standards of leadership and governance,” said Robin Mines, a graduate of George Wythe High School. “It also has failed to prioritize its primary mission: improving educational outcomes for students at a time when many students have experienced learning loss and other severe challenges related to the pandemic. It is our belief that the failure of the School Board to meet accepted standards of governance … is so severe, that they mandate a review and possible corrective action by the state board.”

State education officials have expressed concerns with the board, which already is party to a memorandum of understanding over the school system’s performance and last month was directed by Virginia’s Department of Education to create a manual for board governance.

Jones, who represents the 9th District, agreed with community members’ concerns.

“It points to the inefficacy of the School Board,” he said in an interview. “The one way you test dysfunction is problem solving, and they didn’t solve the problem … Just because they have the power to do so doesn’t mean it’s the right thing.”

Among the concerns council members cite is a difference in building capacity between a design proposal for a new George Wythe ordered by Stoney — contrary to the wishes of the School Board — which has capacity for 2,000 students, and the specifications of the plan adopted Monday, which allows for up to 1,600 students. Jonathan Young, of the 4th District and the School Board’s vice chairman, has attempted to disprove Superintendent Jason Kamras’ claim that Wythe will be overcrowded the day it opens. He pointed to plans for the career and tech center, which say students will likely spend the entire day at the center instead of their zoned high school.

“So you don’t just take your CTE classes, instead you also take your English classes, you take all your courses there,” he said. He also said he anticipates for the building to accommodate at least 1,000 students, and that maybe 200 of those students will come from George Wythe. A presentation on the center doesn’t provide enrollment figures for the building.

Young’s resolution, not unlike a plan Stoney proffered in May, calls for a panel of school and city officials to work together, but to implement a school-driven design.

The backlash over Wythe has swelled since critics of a resolution introduced in April handing Kamras’ administration the authority to build schools learned the move would push back a timeframe for replacing the school, which was built in 1960.

Kamras has said the move will delay the project until 2027, three years after Stoney’s planned deadline. While the board approved $500,000 for three new school construction positions, Kamras suspects that it will cost much more. He also said it was impossible for the administration to solicit design proposals by Aug. 31 and warned that something regarding school reopening would be dropped.

Dawn Page, the 8th District School Board member who attended school at the building where George Wythe High School currently sits, chimed in with her opinion of the proposal passed on Monday.

“[ Kamras] is right. Following this plan, GWHS will be severely over-capacity before construction even begins,” Page stated from her Twitter account. “Black and Brown children will suffer while [five] board members play politics. We will use every tool we have to fight for a quality environment for Southside students!”

Kenya Gibson, who in April introduced the resolution asserting the board’s state-granted authority to oversee school construction, criticized Stoney for his critiques.

“For months, he’s asserted that we’re causing delays,” Gibson said in a statement. “Now he’s blaming us for delays and simultaneously shaming us for going too quickly on Woodville Elementary and the tech center. It just doesn’t add up. But no matter. I’m thrilled we are moving forward with all of these projects.”

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