The Richmond School Board voted this week to take back its authority to build new schools, a process that since 2018 had been led by a team of city and school officials. But the superintendent said he doesn’t think the division is equipped to oversee construction projects, and the city is researching whether the resolution is binding.
The decision could delay plans to solicit proposals to replace George Wythe High School, which was built in 1960.
Late in the night on Monday, the board voted 5-4 in favor of a resolution to give the Richmond School Board the authority to oversee new school construction. The resolution was introduced by 3rd District board member Kenya Gibson, who has long advocated for the school division to be in charge of new school construction.
“Residents of the city are largely surprised when they find out schools aren’t building schools in the first place. I think that folks in the city are also cognizant that these school construction processes have had problems,” she said in an interview.
Gibson’s resolution passed despite opposition from Superintendent Jason Kamras, who said that the board should reaffirm its commitment to continue collaborating with the city of Richmond on new school construction.
The board also directed Kamras to provide staffing recommendations for up to four new positions that would provide the school system with the capacity to oversee school construction, something Kamras said the division doesn’t have.
Kamras said the Joint Construction Team, which meets every week, is a good process to build schools. Formed in 2018, the team, sometimes called the JCT, is made up of RPS administration officials, the School Board leadership, and city administration officials. Together, the team oversees school construction and addresses many issues that might arise during school construction. If the resolution is enforced, the team would dissolve, Kamras said.
“The JCT process is working. We successfully built three beautiful new schools in collaboration with the city, and I don’t see any reasons to change that process,” Kamras said in an interview. He also said he opposed the resolution because RPS doesn’t have the bandwidth to oversee school construction since there’s no one on the procurement team or the facilities team who has the expertise to build new schools. He said he suspects that four people won’t be enough.
Some board members question whether the construction of Henry L. Marsh Elementary, River City Middle School, and Cardinal Elementary were successful. The cost of the schools ballooned from $110 million to $140 million, the Times-Dispatch reported in 2019. That ultimately meant that there was less money to go toward a fourth new school.
Also at issue for those who oppose the resolution is the possibility of a delay building a new George Wythe High School. According to Kamras, George Wythe is scheduled to be open by the fall of 2024, and the city is prepared to put out a request for proposals for the design of the South Side school next week.
8th district School Board member Dawn Page, who once served as chair of the board, said she was troubled by the resolution and voted against it.
“George Wythe High School has been on the facilities master plan since 2002. ... There are many deficiencies in that building,” she said during the meeting. “This is the same conversation we had in 2009, whether or not the School Board had the capacity to build schools. Based on the information at that time, it did not warrant the support, and I’m not sure what has changed since 2009 to 2021.”
Stephanie Rizzi, who represents George Wythe as the 5th District School Board member who supported the resolution, pushed back on the notion that supporters of the resolution don’t care about George Wythe students.
“Nobody wants that school to be a place that’s welcoming to our kids more than I do, she said. “My first time in a classroom was in George Wythe. It is my neighborhood and it represents people that I care about… I don’t necessarily appreciate… the accusations that I don’t care about George Wythe.… This fear mongering is not fair. I don’t see a connection with this resolution and delaying George Wythe.”
It’s unclear whether the city will put out the planned request for proposals. A spokesman for the mayor said that the city is seeking legal advice on the matter.
“The mayor agrees with the superintendent and other board members that it is in the best interest of our children for their school system to focus on books, not bricks,” said Jim Nolan, spokesman for Mayor Levar Stoney. “We’re seeking guidance from the City Attorney on the legality and the effect of the resolution and its potential to delay a new George Wythe. This guidance will inform how we proceed.”
Kamras and other board members also said they felt a lack of transparency since the resolution was not uploaded to Board Docs, the site the Richmond School Board uses to notify the public of its agenda items. Liz Doerr, the 1st District board member, made a motion to delay the vote until early May at Kamras’ request, but it was voted down. Gibson, who put the resolution out on her own social media sites, emailed the board on April 5 to ask if the resolution could be part of the agenda.
“I was frankly disappointed that my resolution had not been uploaded,” Gibson said in an interview. “It was shared with all of my board colleagues prior to when the agenda was made public, and clearly the administration had reviewed it, as their document had talking points against moving forward with the resolution.”
Megan Rhyne, an open government advocate, said it’s long been the stance of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government that agenda items not be added past a certain point so the public would have advanced notice.
“We have long taken the position that we would prefer that items that are not emergency or time sensitive not be added to the agenda past a certain period,” Rhyne said. “Whether it’s a resolution, whether it’s an action item ... we just have always felt that the public should have advance notice and be able to rely on that so that those who may not have seen anything of interest don’t get left out when something that they are interested in gets added to the agenda after the fact.”