RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A majority of the Richmond City Council voted to delay their decision on whether to transfer over $7 million to the Richmond City School Board for planning costs associated witht he new George Wythe High School.
City Ordinance 2021-308 would move $7.31 million from the ‘School Planning and Construction’ fund to the ‘School Modernization – George Wythe High School’ fund. That move would allow the Richmond School Board to utilize the money for the planning and design of a new George Wythe High School.
The city has already solicited their own proposals for the school, but over the last few months the school board has asserted its authority to direct the construction of schools in the city, refusing to consider a joint effort with the city council and Mayor Levar Stoney.
Monday’s resolution was a compromise put forward by Stoney, which would have allowed the school board to start the planning process, but did not go as far as committing to funding whatever plan the school board eventually settled on.
As of Monday, the city council determined they were not ready to make a final decision on the transfer of funds and will instead discuss the topic again at their meeting on Jan. 10. City Councilmember Kristen Nye Larson was the only member who did not want to delay the decision.
Ahead of the decision to continue the discussion to next month, numerous citizens gave their comment on the resolution. All but one speaker was opposed to the transfer of funds, with only Richmond Crusade for Voters 2nd Vice President Marty Jewell speaking in favor.
“Those dollars need to be made available to the school board,” Jewell said.
Meeting attendees included a woman who graduated from George Wythe High School and now has four children attending Richmond Public Schools. She was worried that the school board doesn’t have a clear plan for the money.
“Please can you hold the funds until all 9 school board members come up with a plan,” she asked the city council.
Charles Willis, President of the Richmond Highway Civic Association, asked them to hold off on approving the money “until that school board – those five – meet with us.”
Willis said he was concerned about the lack of community engagement by the school board.
As for the five members Willis mentioned, the city council said they had invited all of the school board members to attend the Monday meeting but only two members showed up – Chair Cheryl Burke and Dawn Page. They were joined by Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools Jason Kamras.
Five members of the school board sent the city council an email about 15 minutes before the 6 p.m. meeting. Those members were Mariah White, Stephanie Rizzi, Shonda Harris-Muhammed, Kenya Gibson and Jonathan Young.
The email expressed the school board members’ support for the transfer of funds and said their plans for the school building met the “needs of the district” and allowed for improvements to also be made to Woodville Elementary School.
The Richmond School Board recently submitted a Request for Proposals for a 1,600-student George Wythe High School. City Council and community members raised questions about the 1,600 student capacity, arguing that current projections suggest the school would be too small for the growing southside community.
Dr. Michael Jones, 9th district city councilman, said it’s irresponsible to go forward with a plan that will have the school at its maximum capacity the day it opens.
“It’s neither fiscally prudent nor fair to the teachers and students of George Wythe,” Jones said.
Another one of the concerns consistently posed by families in Richmond and elected officials is the timeline for the school’s construction. Many parents and George Wythe graduates are calling for improvements to be made sooner rather than later.
City Councilmember Stephanie Lynch advocated for delaying the vote and said she did not think that pushing the ordinance to January would delay the construction project.
Superintendent Kamras said that the review for proposals is still ongoing and they will not have a finalist until January or February. He said, the school district will not be in a position to use the funding until a finalist is chosen.
How We Got Here
The construction of the new George Wythe High School has become a point of friction between Mayor Levar Stoney, City Council members, and the Richmond City School Board.
The trouble began in earnest at the beginning of August, when the School Board voted not to accept an offer by the city to cooperate on the construction of the school.
The school board has sought to direct the construction process themselves, setting a goal of having the school open by 2027 with a capacity of 1,600 students.
But those plans drew backlash from the community and concern from city officials. City council members raised concerns that the school would be overcrowded from day one, as the rapidly growing Southside expands.
In an effort to ease tensions with the school board, Mayor Levar Stoney proposed a resolution to transfer $7 million to give the school board the funds to solicit school designs and start the planning process. The resolution would not, however, provide a blank check for the school board to fund the plan and timeline they eventually settle on.
That was the proposal City Council elected not to vote on Monday night.