George Mason Elementary became symbolic of the substandard conditions in Richmond Public Schools facilities last year, when building staff members who were weary of sweeping rat droppings from desks and attempting to teach students bundled against the cold demanded that city leaders take action.
On Wednesday morning, the squat brick building in Richmond’s East End was the first stop on a tour celebrating three new school buildings planned to rise with the help of proceeds from a meals tax hike championed by Mayor Levar Stoney and approved by the City Council this year.
Stoney on Wednesday credited those who’d said, “Our kids deserve better.”
“I want you all to know the city heard them, and today is the beginning of better in the city of Richmond,” he said.
The city was able to use the promise of extra money it hopes to bring in yearly from the tax increase — $9.1 million — and leverage it to borrow $150 million for school construction over the next five years, ending an effective freeze on projects hamstrung by the city’s debt capacity.
The rate change, which took effect July 1, brings the combined meals and sales tax rate from 11.3 percent to 12.8 percent, meaning a $10 meal in the city that would have cost $11.13 after state and local taxes now costs $11.28.
In addition to George Mason, city and schools leaders visited E.S.H. Greene Elementary and the former site of Elkhardt Middle School, both in South Richmond, to sink shovels into dirt Wednesday morning.
Construction of the three buildings will begin in February. Each is scheduled to open in September 2020.
Joining Stoney to mark the milestones Wednesday were council members who supported the tax hike, School Board members and RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras, who lobbied in support of the plan on his second day on the job in February.
Outside of George Mason, Kamras stressed how important school conditions are to students’ success.
“I believe today is a first giant step to showing our kids: We love you, and when you walk into your building every morning, you will feel that love because the buildings are beautiful and modern and designed to help them succeed in every facet of their life,” Kamras said.
RPS sank $130,000 into George Mason at 813 N. 28th St. to keep the building open at the start of last school year. Its replacement is overdue, said Cheryl Burke, the 7th District representative on the School Board.
“I’ve been waiting for this for over 30 years, seriously,” said Burke, a longtime Church Hill resident.
Mason was one of five schools prioritized for new buildings by the School Board in a $224 million plan, the first phase of what city and school leaders have said will require hundreds of millions of dollars over the next three decades to modernize the system’s 44 schools.
The meals tax increase will build three schools over the next five years, leaving two that the School Board prioritized in the first phase — Woodville Elementary in the East End and George Wythe High in South Richmond — still unfunded.
A plan that could have pumped an additional $50 million into school construction or major capital maintenance projects — an 80-cent-a-pack cigarette tax — was rejected by council members two months after the body passed the meals tax increase.
In October, Kamras proposed a 10-cent hike to the real estate tax rate. Neither the mayor nor any member of the council pledged support for the idea.
Asked how his administration planned to close the gap, Stoney said he would present a plan “very, very soon” to “fulfill the needs of Richmond Public Schools in terms of new facilities.”
Under a charter change that 85 percent of Richmond voters backed in 2017 and the Virginia General Assembly approved, Stoney has until Dec. 31 to present the plan, which cannot rely on tax increases, to the council.
Last month, Stoney said he would seek to dedicate 50 percent of any surplus revenue generated by the $1.4 billion Richmond Coliseum redevelopment project his administration is pursuing. According to a consultant his administration hired to review the project, that sum is projected at $600 million over 30 years.
This story has been updated to reflect that voters approved a charter change in 2017.