Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney says his administration will continue reviewing design development proposals for George Wythe High School next week, even if the School Board chooses not to participate in the evaluation process.
In a letter to the School Board on Wednesday, the mayor offered to give the school division a majority of seats on an evaluation panel in hopes of starting the school project so that it can open by 2025.
The letter is the mayor’s latest effort to make the School Board rebuild the more than 60-year-old, decrepit school building on the city administration’s terms, a prospect that a razor-thin majority on the board say is unacceptable.
While the majority say they want the school division to manage the project to keep costs down after a string of other school building projects that exceeded initial cost projections, Stoney and Superintendent Jason Kamras say that would delay a new George Wythe until 2027.
“[Director of Procurement Services Betty Burrell] strongly advises that Richmond Public Schools appoint representatives to the evaluation panel,” Stoney wrote. “While procurement policy prevents sharing details, Ms. Burrell has shared that it will be a heartbreaking loss for the George Wythe community if RPS misses the opportunity to participate in the evaluation of these proposals.”
As of Thursday evening, it remains unclear whether the School Board will accept the mayor’s offer after multiple rebukes this summer. On Monday, several weeks after a public meeting where dozens of Wythe community members asked elected officials to work together to hurry the project, the School Board reaffirmed that the school system should manage all school building projects.
“The city’s RFP defines scope details that have not been approved by the School Board,” said Kenya Gibson, a member of the board who introduced a resolution earlier this year reasserting the school division’s authority, in an email Thursday. “Additionally, the city’s RFP puts the city as the owner of the project. Ultimately the contractor would report to the city — not the schools.”
Jonathan Young, another board member who supports the school division handling its own construction projects, said Thursday that he still wants the School Board to issue its own request for proposals by the end of this month. Kamras has said the school division will need three new officials to manage construction projects, including Wythe.
“I welcome the mayor identifying sooner rather than later what city representatives will join RPS staff on a joint panel to begin evaluating the bids,” Young said.
There may be little that the administration can do about it if the School Board rebukes the mayor again, as state law explicitly vests school construction under the purview of local school systems, said Thomas M. Wolf, a lawyer who has taught construction law at the University of Richmond since the late 1980s.
“If a governmental body awards a contract and they did not follow precisely statutory and constitutional requirements, then that contract is not enforceable,” said Wolf, the husband of former School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf. By awarding a contract, he said, the body would be interfering with a school board’s legal authority to enter into such a contract.
Wolf said he is unsure whether the city could face penalties, but noted it could harm the city’s reputation with contractors.
It remains unclear whether the city intends to award the contract if the School Board still refuses to work with the administration. Burrell and a spokesman for the mayor did not respond to questions by Thursday evening.