Mayor Stoney, community members continue to urge School Board to collaborate on new George Wythe HS

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond community members continue to press the Richmond School Board to open a new George Wythe High School as soon as possible.

“Wythe cant wait!,” people chanted at a Richmond Community Coalition meeting Monday. The coalition is made up of advocacy groups and civic organizations.

Richmond Public Schools anticipates a fall 2027 opening date. However, Mayor Stoney said with the city’s help, it can open in Jan. 2025.

Back in April, the school board voted 5-4 to take control of new school construction. With RPS in charge, Superintendent Jason Kamras does not project a new George Wythe High School to open until 2027 as they work to get a construction team together.

Mayor Stoney called this timeline “disrespectful” Monday night. “To make kids wait until you hire construction team, hire procurement team… you know how long that’s gonna take?,” he said.

Last month, Stoney opened a Request for Proposals, or RFP, when it comes to design services in hopes of getting the ball rolling on construction. He said the longer the school board waits to accept the RFP, the further the timeline gets pushed back. However, if they accept it now, the new school could open in Jan. 2025– two years earlier than the projected opening date with the school district working alone.

Monday, the mayor again urged the school board to take this offer to collaborate.

“I don’t care who builds schools. What I care about is our kids get into a state of the art facility as quick as possible,” he said.

However, the school board indicated at its last meeting that they will not be accepting the mayor’s RFP.

Board Member Kenya Gibson sent 8News the following statement Monday evening:

“As a board member, I want every student to learn in safe, functional buildings. The mayor has estimated that a new George Wythe will cost the city over $140 million. Meanwhile, Henrico just built two high schools that were each about $100 million. That $40 million difference is the cost of building another elementary school. We cannot use our resources this way and claim the moral high ground. The students at Wythe have waited too long, just as the students at Woodville Elementary school have. Our students across the district will continue to wait unless we start working smarter. So if we can save millions of dollars, build more schools, and truly engage the community in the process by taking a different approach — it’s a win all around.”

Richmond School Board Member Kenya Gibson

The school board will hold a community meeting Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. where they will discuss the mayor’s proposed compromise since the community has not been involved in that discussion yet. Board members also said they will discuss a letter that will be sent to Mayor Stoney, formally rejecting his offer to collaborate.

Gibson sent 8News a draft of that letter, which is below:

Dear Mayor Stoney, President Newbille, Vice President Robertson, and Councilmembers,

Thank you for the robust engagement and critical thought that you have applied to this most important topic of school construction. We concur that we all want the same thing: to do right by the children in the City of Richmond.

The democratic decision of our School Board to reaffirm the right for School Board’s in the Commonwealth of Virginia the right to govern school construction is an act of community-first representation. Our job is to act in the interest of our students, our families, and the employees for Richmond Public Schools. Our assessment, based on extensive evidence and developed out of lengthy discussions with the School Board, is that the stakeholders we were elected to represent have not benefited from Mayoral control of school construction. We have seen numerous challenges in the Joint Construction Team process established after the passage of the meals tax. It is our responsibility to address those problems and to ensure a more equitable and functional process moving forward. The challenges, outlined below, include delays in school construction, failed inspections, costly and timely repairs, and conflicts of interest in construction spending.

In 2018, the School Board adopted a facilities plan that detailed the process to construct four new schools in the district the schools were: E.S.H. Greene Elementary School, George Mason Elementary School, Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School, and George Wythe High School. There was sufficient funding to procure architectural services to design all four projects immediately. However, the mayor’s administration only released Requests for Proposals to design the first three schools without the advice and consent of the school board. It was also asserted by the city that these schools must open by the beginning of the 2020 school year, again without discussion or an approval by the local School Board to allocate additional funding to these projects. Because of this arbitrarily compressed timeline, the city administration decided to execute a Construction Management at Risk (CMR) project delivery method. This process does not require that procurement happen through sealed bids and also does not prioritize the lowest responsive bid in contract selection. Although price is a factor in selection, qualitative factors typically outweigh cost, essentially making the process non-competitive.

Furthermore, as noted in Audit Report #2021-05 Citywide – Capital Improvement Projects Audit from the city’s own auditor, the management of the CMR process itself was flawed. The details are laid out in Finding #2 of the document; the thrust of the issue was that instead of establishing a firm cost for construction early in the project, the administration contracted for services through a series of change orders and, as a result, drove up the price considerably. Even in the administration’s response to the audit, they in no way take accountability or provide a sufficient explanation for this mismanagement.

For the reasons noted, of these choices and ensuing mismanagement of the project, the final cost of the projects overran by approximately $30 million. This ensured that students at schools identified next on the facilities plan, including George Wythe and Woodville Elementary, would be robbed of a new school on an appropriate timeline. As noted in Audit Report #2021-05, “VDOE data revealed that the City’s costs to build the elementary schools for contracts awarded in CY2018 and CY2019 were higher than the costs in Chesterfield County as well as the State’s average cost.” The administration, in its response to this critique, has asserted that these costs are a result of various market factors; however, they assert this without data or evidence of any kind.

Another major issue of note is that the city failed to meet the 40% goal for minority-owned businesses subcontractors. Reporting by the Richmond Free Press confirms that those minority contractors who were granted contracts with the city for school construction were paid late, or have not yet been paid at all. This constitutes a significant violation of public trust. As we commit dollars to public projects, we must ensure that minority communities are given the opportunity to build wealth. This must be a top priority.

Finally, despite the sacrifice of a new George Wythe High School, the three schools that were built under the mayor’s control were not even completed on the administration’s own timeline. Temporary certificates of occupancy were not issued for Henry L. Marsh III and Cardinal Elementary Schools until October; the new River City Middle School had yet to pass inspection at that time. Were it not for the pandemic, our students would have had no school to attend in fall of 2020.

There is no question that the School Board has sufficient cause to immediately reassert its legally-granted authority to control school construction. This action brings us in line with state code, and empowers our communities to have greater say in when and how their schools are built. We ask the Mayor and City Council directly to respect the democratic decision-making power of the School Board. Over the next several months, the Superintendent’s administration will hire and onboard new staff to bring procurement and management in house. We, as the duly elected governing body of the school system, believe that this is in the best interest of students and will ensure that public dollars are spent in an efficient and just manner.

In order for our schools to succeed, we must work together. The Council, by right, has control over city spending. We will need continued collaboration to ensure that the school system has sufficient capital funding over the next few years so that every student can learn in a safe and healthy environment. Further, it should be noted that the schools building schools resolution and our affirmation of this resolution should not preclude other collaborative efforts. We ask that the city provide clarity relevant to the timing for access to $100M for the construction of George Wythe and $100M for the construction of a new career and technical high school. Further, we ask if there is additional funding available given the city’s estimates that the George Wythe project would cost upwards of $140M. We ask this because it is our hope to build the project for a substantially lower cost, allowing us to also proceed with the Woodville Elementary school project concurrent with the other two projects. This funding will be essential to the success of our school system and will ensure that even more students will have a much-deserved new school.

It is not lost on us that if the city had followed the Board’s approved facilities plan that more students would attend school in a modern facility in the upcoming school year. The Board intends to right this wrong as quickly as possible; we hope to receive the city’s support as we do so.

We look forward to the work ahead and working together as three governing bodies to move our school division forward.

Sincerely,

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