The Richmond City Council will now decide how soon a new George Wythe High School is built.
After announcing last month that he might withhold funding for the project, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has asked the city’s legislative body to “carefully” consider the school division’s plans to replace the dilapidated South Side school before voting next month on whether to give $7.3 million to begin design work on it.
“I patroned this ordinance so that we can move the conversation to a new venue — City Council — where I believe the greatest opportunity for progress still exists,” Stoney said in a news conference on Tuesday. “It’s clear to me that we will make no progress if we continue as we have for the last seven months.”
The mayor’s administration introduced the funding resolution late Monday evening, marking the latest turn in the ongoing dispute over school building projects that began when the School Board voted 5-4 in April to wrest control of them from the city administration.
The mayor said he is concerned the school division’s plan for a facility that can hold a maximum of 1,600 students will lead to overcrowding when it opens, but still introduced the funding ordinance to the City Council late Monday evening. At about the same time, the School Board voted to redirect about $2 million previously assigned to capital and maintenance projects in this year’s budget to begin design work on a new George Wythe.
Stoney said that only his administration has the authority to reappropriate capital budget dollars. School Board members Kenya Gibson and Jonathan Young challenged the mayor, however, and said they expect the school division will award a design contract this month to begin the Wythe project.
“City Council allocates the dollars, but the School Board ... decides on the projects relevant to how we’re going to spend that money,” Young said in an interview.
But that’s not how city administration officials or Superintendent Jason Kamras understand rules for capital improvement funds.
The School Board’s lawyer, Jonnell Lilly, said she was not prepared to answer for the legality of the matter during Monday’s board meeting. (The School Board recently voted to seek new legal counsel.)
“This is a demonstration of the dysfunction that is surrounding the School Board right now,” Stoney said. “Give the public something they can believe in.”
Stoney also sharply criticized the Richmond School Board on Tuesday for weakening the school division’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate after six members voted to bar the superintendent from docking pay or firing staff for not getting the shot. When the School Board approved the mandate in August, they knew it came with a progressive discipline plan that could lead to termination.
School Board members earlier this year voted to assert their state-vested authority to take control of school construction, citing concerns about recent school construction costs, the quality of the work and political donations Stoney has received from construction companies.
“I guess he has to call us dysfunctional to distract from the truth — that he’s been spending millions of dollars more on building schools than he should have and the projects his team have managed are riddled with problems,” Gibson said in a statement Tuesday evening.
The dispute over George Wythe has resulted in public bickering between the mayor and City Council against the School Board and public outcry from residents of Richmond’s South Side who want the school rebuilt. The school, which was built in 1960, is visibly aging and has been renovated once since the 1980s. Its rebuild has been delayed for nearly two decades.
Anthony Rodriguez-Ortiz, a senior at George Wythe High School who served as the student representative at Monday’s board meeting, told the School Board that his school needs to be rebuilt immediately and that there’s a pest problem in the building.
“I love George Wythe High School, especially its diverse atmosphere of both students and faculty. However, the current state of the school is not fit for those who attend,” Rodriguez-Ortiz said. “The condition of many fixtures at the school are in need of an extensive overhaul. Furthermore, there is a pest problem within the school that needs to be addressed immediately.”
The board voted 5-4 on Monday to reallocate $2 million from its capital budget to begin design work for George Wythe and two other schools.
The money, according to city budget records, was earmarked for several projects, including structural repairs and new generators, fire alarm systems and roofs for at least 10 different schools. The School Board resolution adopted Monday night banks on the school division replacing those funds with the money from Stoney’s proposed funding ordinance.
“I pray that we can come to a resolution that whatever questions the council has, we can hopefully address and hopefully we can move beyond this and get to the work,” Kamras said. “I imagine [the] council is going to have the same questions that I had about the size of the school.”
It’s unclear how the City Council might act on the mayor’s funding proposal.
City Councilman Michael Jones, of the 9th District, said he’s worried about students in his district attending an overcrowded school if the School Board moves forward with its conceptual building plans for Wythe, noting that the newly built River City Middle School that feeds into Wythe is near full capacity.
Young said he doesn’t think the school will be over capacity because of a new technical education center that’s also being planned near Wythe. Stoney, Jones and other city officials, however, are skeptical of that idea.
“I’m willing to take steps to show how serious we are as a council,” Jones said. “If that means withholding funding for a particular project or budget year, then I’m all for it.”
Fifth District City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch, who also represents Wythe students and families, said she’s frustrated with the dispute and how the school division’s building plans for the new school are taking shape.
However, she said she is reluctant to vote against giving the money for the project.
“I have no intention of delaying the vote whatsoever. At the end of the day, they got us backed into a corner,” she said. “This is not how it should be. The people deserve better than this. It’s mostly been politics. People don’t deserve that.”