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Richmond NAACP, civic leaders consider litigation, recall campaign as mayor and school board remain divided over George Wythe
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Richmond NAACP, civic leaders consider litigation, recall campaign as mayor and school board remain divided over George Wythe

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Thanks, but no thanks.

That’s what the Richmond School Board told Mayor Levar Stoney again this week after the city’s deadline passed for bids to design a new George Wythe High School.

Administration officials will not say how many proposals the city received, citing provisions in the city’s code. But that matters little to the School Board after a razor-thin majority on Monday reaffirmed that the school system should manage school construction projects.

The latest rebuke of a compromise the mayor proposed three months ago comes as the Richmond NAACP and other civic leaders are now publicly discussing suing the School Board and petitioning for the removal of its members before the next election cycle in 2024.

The discourse centers around how soon it would take the school division to rebuild the high school in the city’s South Side, which is more than 60 years old and in poor condition. The mayor’s administration had set a 2024 opening date earlier this year, but Superintendent Jason Kamras says it may now take until 2027 to complete.

“We don’t care who builds schools are long as they are built,” said Richmond NAACP President James “J.J.” Minor. “The school isn’t safe. ... What we want is for them to listen to the community.”

Minor declined to say what criminal or civil claims they might present, but said the collective is still considering its options, including litigation against school officials for allowing it to remain open to students while in its current state.

Under state code, a circuit court judge may only consider a recall petition if it is signed by a number of registered voters that equals 10% or more of votes cast in the last election for that office. A judge may only then remove the elected official if they are found guilty of neglect of duty, misuse of office, a hate crime or certain drug and sexual assault crimes.

Kenya Gibson, who introduced the School Board resolution asserting its authority over all school construction projects, said she was unavailable for an interview and could not answer questions Tuesday. Two other School Board members who support the move say they’re not concerned about the threat of litigation or a recall petition.

School Board member Stephanie Rizzi, whose district includes Wythe, said she did not think that construction would be delayed when she and four other board members voted for the resolution last April.

She said discord has been caused by the mayor’s refusal to cooperate with the School Board on its terms. “I’m of the deep belief that it’s the most effective way forward,” Rizzi said of the resolution in a phone interview Tuesday. “I think the delay is happening because the city is refusing to collaborate with the School Board.

The same majority has remained steadfast, rejecting a compromise the mayor offered earlier this year that would give the school division a bigger role than it has now in school construction projects.

About a month later — with no formal response from the School Board — the mayor announced that the city would issue a request for design service bids in hopes of getting the body to work with his administration.

Jonathan Young, another School Board member supporting division control over construction, said he thinks the school can still be built within the next three years if the administration was willing to work with the School Board.

Stoney previously proposed rebuilding Wythe in 2018, as he campaigned to hike the city’s meals tax so Richmond could build five schools.

City voters approved increasing the tax on meals from 6% to 7.5%. City officials, however, said it only generated enough money to build three schools: Cardinal Elementary School, George Mason Elementary School and River City Middle School.

Stoney campaigned again last year on rebuilding Wythe, which critics said was a failure from his first term, as the three other school projects exceeded earlier budget projections and average building costs in neighboring jurisdictions.

“We’re trying to prevent that from happening again,” Young said.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Stoney said the School Board is effectively delaying construction by refusing to work with his administration, leaving Kamras to recommend hiring three new school division officials to manage and oversee school construction projects.

“The fact that the School Board wants to replicate this process and spend more taxpayer money on something we could get together ... it’s a miscarriage of governance,” he said.

The threat of a lawsuit — issued hours ahead of the board meeting Monday — followed a fundraising email last week in which Stoney’s political action committee said it would put its “entire weight” behind the Wythe issue. Stoney on Tuesday did not say whether he would support litigation or a recall campaign, but he said some School Board members could face significant opposition when all nine seats are up for re-election in 2024.

In 2017, the mayor’s PAC, donated $1,000 to incumbent School Board appointee Cindy Menz-Erb, whom Gibson, the sponsor of the so-called “schools building schools” resolution, defeated in a special election that year.

Stoney himself donated $200 to Gibson’s opponent Sabrina Gross last year, according to records available online from the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in politics.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that some of these individuals who were involved in throwing up these roadblocks and obstacles probably won’t be around,” Stoney said Tuesday. “I don’t think they’ll be re-elected at all.”

Dozens of community members with ties to Wythe turned out to a community meeting at the school last month to ask that elected leaders work together and speed up the timeline to rebuild.

Both Rizzi and Young, however, said their constituents understand their position and are unafraid of any political challenges against them.

It remains unclear what the mayor’s administration will do next, as questions remain about whether the city has the legal authority to award a contract for school design work. At the direction of the School Board, Kamras must issue a procurement request for the design of Wythe by the end of August.

City records online show that city procurement officials told interested parties that the city intends to award the contract despite the school division’s intention to issue its own request for proposals.

Stoney on Tuesday said city officials will still review the design service proposals it received, but a spokesman for the mayor said later that the administration remains undecided on how it will proceed.

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