RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — More than a year after a devastating fire destroyed Richmond’s William F. Fox Elementary School, 8News got a look inside the historic building to see the damage, as well as the repair work that has been done to date.
Richmond Public Schools (RPS) Chief Operating Officer Dana Fox said that the rebuild process is now underway.
“Everything that we are doing moving forward is to put Fox back together,” she said. “The shoring and the stabilization and demolition and cleaning, all of that is 100% complete.”
Fox said that roof work would begin in the coming months, with the school having sat uncovered for much of the past year.
“When we received the building back [from the City], the damage on the upstairs — and you all will be able to see when you’re up there — the span of it is so great that a traditional tarp situation would not have worked for this,” Fox said. “There was a lot of work that had to be done to clean up everything because, keep in mind, everything was still in the building from the day before when school was in session. So we had to go through and hand-clean out everything. There were not machines that came through and did that. Everything was done with shovels and wheelbarrows.”
The more than 110-year-old building went up in flames the night of Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Despite a months-long investigation, a cause was never determined. But Fox was able to point out an approximate area of origin on the upper level of the school Wednesday, where charring was most prevalent in what used to be the auditorium.
Inside the historic structure, some chalkboards still had writing on them. Fox said that there was about a foot and a half of debris on the upstairs level, and approximately 3-feet-worth in the auditorium in the days after the fire from the roof collapsing. She also noted that there were backpacks, art supplies and jackets still in the building immediately after the fire from when children had been there earlier in the day.
“I’m a former Fox [Elementary School] parent, and I haven’t been inside yet, but I had my kids in class on every single floor,” Richmond City Councilwoman Katherine Jordan said Wednesday, before stepping inside the building for the first time since last February’s fire. “I know this is going to be emotional, just as it is for every parent who’s trying to continue to work through this, work through COVID, finally got back into school, got kicked back out because of the fire.”
In recent months, concerns have been raised about funding the rebuilding project. Fox said Wednesday that reconstruction was estimated to cost at least $25 million dollars. However, School Board members have noted that there is an approximate $15 million gap between that budget and what VAcorp insurance would cover.
“RPS has never verbally or in writing been notified of any negligence or anything that would take away from what [the insurance company] would provide for us for Fox,” Fox said. “VAcorp came out in January to do a reassessment. Their first initial assessment was in March. We received that report in May, and obviously, it didn’t adequately address what the real, significant hurdles were going to be to rebuild this structure.”
Fox added that RPS is now in a “holding pattern,” waiting for VAcorp’s third-party estimate to come back, which she said is likely to be in March.
“I’m confident we’ll get a full report,” she said. “Hopefully, that’ll close the gap from the initial report.”
In the meantime, the school division has employed other efforts to secure funding, including having former School Board member and current state delegate, Jeff Board, propose $15 million in funding from the Commonwealth to rebuild Fox Elementary School. That proposal failed to garner enough support from other lawmakers. The school’s PTA has also held fundraising events, and Jordan encouraged residents Wednesday to contact their state representatives to push for more education funding from the General Assembly.
“Come July 1, School Board will have $200 million in general obligation bonds. The meals tax, which has been paying off and continues to pay off the last three schools that were built, allows us to go after that additional funding,” Jordan said. “When it comes to what comes next, that’s a School Board decision. I think what we can all see is there are two shovel-ready projects — George Wythe and Fox.”
White said that she would be proposing that $15 million of those general obligation bonds be allocated for the reconstruction of Fox Elementary School.
“Some are seeing that this school is being built really quickly, where you have other schools here that haven’t been built in years, and I can see that,” White said. “But if those schools had the resources — because there’s a different economic base.”
When asked what would happen if that $15 million proposal failed, White said that she was confident in the support of her constituents and fellow School Board members. But she also said that, had full funding been available for Fox Elementary’s rebuild from the start, she believed construction on the structure could have been closer to completion.
“We are aware of the shortage on the School Board. So what we would do is prioritize all the projects,” White said. “We’re going to prioritize those funds, even if we have to do a little bit of increments of each school. We’re not going to leave any of our schools out.”
White, Jordan and Fox also noted that the school division would be looking at applying for construction grants, slated to open in March. But, at most, White said that would cover approximately $6 million.
“I don’t know where things stand with historic tax credits, but we will continue to be creative and persistent, getting as much money as we can for all of our school projects,” Jordan said. “There’s also a lot of money on the table in the Senate budge for classroom and family needs.”
But what does that mean for the other schools in need of financial support in RPS?
“As a board, we will have to actually pick out those priorities, actually. Also, we need to vote on it as a board. I only speak for one district, which is 2nd District. So my priority will be Fox, of course,” White said. “This was unexpected, and [other schools are] not being bumped down.”
If construction remains on schedule and funding allows, school leaders reinforced Wednesday that Fox Elementary School would likely be open for students in August of 2025.