The construction of a new George Wythe High School has been delayed again after the Richmond City Council on Monday voted to delay a $7.3 million transfer to the city school division.
The council stalled the proposed transfer following a rally outside of City Hall where a dozen school parents and community members challenged those in charge of the city’s purse strings to continue scrutinizing the school division’s plans for the school before releasing the money.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney introduced the funding legislation last month despite repeatedly raising concerns about the new school possibly being overcrowded if it opens with a capacity for 1,600 students instead of 2,000 students, as originally envisioned by city officials.
About a dozen demonstrators ahead of the council meeting Monday echoed those concerns, chanting “2,000 seats” and “Wythe can’t wait.”
The school, which opened in 1960, is visibly aging and has been renovated once since the 1980s. City and school division officials agree that it must be replaced after years of delayed action, but have been at odds over the size of the school and who should be in control of its construction.
“They’ve promised us a new building since I was in high school there. And I graduated in 2007,” Tisha Erby, a mother of five children, one of whom is expected to attend Wythe next year, said in an interview before the council meeting. “But it has to have more than 2,000 kids.”
Wythe, according to Virginia Department of Education enrollment data, is currently near its maximum capacity of 1,400 students. Recent enrollment projections show it reaching 120% of its current capacity by 2024, so it would likely open over capacity if a new school is limited to 1,600 students, according to the mayor.
School Board member Jonathan Young in a statement Monday said it would be “highly irresponsible and gross abuse” of taxpayer funds to build a school for 2,000 students, noting that there are about 2,500 vacant classroom seats across the entire school system and plans for a new Woodville Elementary School that also requires funding.
Young has previously said that a new career and technical education center that’s slated to rise near Wythe could also accommodate area students who live near Wythe.
“Proponents of building an unnecessarily big George Wythe are telling the students at Woodville Elementary to get in line and wait,” he said. “Instead, my colleagues and I are prioritizing ... stretching every dollar to build not one school but instead three.”
Stoney originally set out to rebuild Wythe during his first term, highlighting the school in his pitch for a meals tax increase that the City Council approved in 2018. The revenue covered only the cost of three new schools: Cardinal Elementary School, Henry Marsh Elementary School and River City Middle School.
Stoney during his re-election campaign last year said Wythe remained a priority. A few months after he was elected to a second term, a slim majority of five School Board members passed a resolution wresting control of school construction projects from his administration, noting its failure to rebuild Wythe and other school projects that exceeded earlier cost estimates.
The move has led to months of debate and controversy, as city and school officials have accused one another of refusing to collaborate and neglecting public demand for a new building as soon as possible.
“They don’t even know what they are doing,” Robin Mines, a 1976 graduate of Wythe and president of the Swansboro Civic Association, said of the School Board members who voted for the so-called Schools Building Schools resolution. “They’re showing total incompetence and disrespect for the mayor’s office and the school superintendent.”
While Superintendent Jason Kamras pushed back against the resolution with concerns about construction being delayed, saying that the school division would need new professional staff to manage school construction projects, division staff started soliciting bids for design work this fall.
In Monday night’s council meeting, Kamras shared concerns about the school being overcrowded if it opens with a 1,600-student capacity. “It gives me no pleasure to do anything that might cause any delay, but it would cause me even greater displeasure to open up the building in a way that was not safe or conducive for students and for teachers to do their work,” he said.
Thad Williamson, a University of Richmond professor and one of Stoney’s original policy advisers, also joined the rally Monday night. In an interview, Williamson noted that the original plans for a 2,000-student capacity building were higher in hopes of reversing high dropout rates for Latino students, who currently make up about half of the school’s population.
“It seems very speculative to make a $100 million decision on the basis of an idea from one official that hasn’t been vetted,” Williamson said in his interview. “There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to need that capacity.”
Young and four other School Board members in a letter to City Council on Monday said city and school division staff have reviewed nine bids for the design contract. The letter says those officials would make recommendations for a contract award once the funding is transferred.