Richmond School Board pressured to hand school construction power back to the city

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A week after the Richmond School Board voted to take control of school construction projects, opposing city and school leadership are pressuring the board to give the back the power.

Tension is growing among members of Mayor Levar Stoney’s office and some members of the school board, which voted to put itself in control of building new schools last Monday. If the new resolution — which passed in a 5-4 vote — is enforced, the school board will have lead oversight of future school construction projects.

“In simple terms, schools should build schools. As the mayor pushes for casino deals we must ensure school construction prioritizes students rather than political priorities,” said school board member Kenya Gibson, of district 3.

In recent years, a joint committee of RPS leaders, school board members, and staff in the mayor’s administration have been in control of building new schools. They meet once a week.

The rebuilding of George Wythe High school, a school built in 1960 but set to be replaced since 2002, is front and center of the argument to keep the existing model.

The resolution was drafted by Gibson and supported by four other school board members, including Stephanie Rizzi of the 5th district, where George Wythe is. They argue that the city’s control of school construction projects has been slow, costly, and political.

“There was a.. press conference with the mayor like 12 days before the election. That we were going to build a new George Wythe. So if somebody’s talking about this being political, it is political for somebody, but it aint me,” Gibson said at last week’s virtual school board meeting.

Not much has been said about the Wythe project in recent months. When the resolution was read last week, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras said the city was planning to send a Request for Proposal (RFP) out this week.

Kamras was vocally against giving RPS the power to build its own schools. He said the shift will delay construction of a new George Wythe high school by up to three years, but hasn’t yet explained how he arrived at that timeline estimate. He also said the school board does not have the expertise and isn’t equipped to take on the lead.

“I would like to respectfully but strongly disagree with that position,” Kamras said at the meeting. “We as a division are not equipped at all to manage the construction of new schools as we are currently set up.” He said they would have to staff up “rather significantly,” and doing so would take several months.

However, school board member Stephanie Rizzi told 8News the shift would not delay George Wythe completion plans.

“Some people have looked at the resolution and drawn this conclusion that somehow this means…. that the building of a new George Wythe High School will be delayed as a result of our resolution. I’m not sure where that perception originated or what evidence they’re using to support that. I have not been able to pin that down from anywhere,” she said in an interview with 8News Monday.

“I will go down fighting for that. I would never support something that would delay it or prevent that from happening,” Rizzi said. After the resolution passed, the board directed Kamras to provide staffing recommendations for up to four new positions to oversee school construction.

Mayor Levar Stoney’s office defended how schools have been built since he took office.

“RPS and the city administration worked together to build three new schools in less than three years and meet the needs of some of our most underserved communities. This cooperation has served the city well,” said Jim Nolan, a spokesperson for Mayor Levar Stoney. “The Mayor agrees with the Superintendent and other School Board members that it is in the best interest of our children for their school system to focus on books, not bricks.”

8th district School Board member Dawn Page is one of four who voted against the resolution.

“George Wythe High School has been on the facilities master plan since 2002… There are many deficiencies in that building,” she said. “This is the same conversation we had in 2009, whether or not the School Board had the capacity to build schools. Based on the information at that time, it did not warrant the support, and I’m not sure what has changed since 2009 to 2021.”

A week after the resolution passed, school board members against the change stood alongside a few George Wythe students, graduates, and other supporters to speak out against the change. They argue the power shift lacked transparency and was pushed through to a vote before giving the community time to comment on it.

Both sides also claim the other is “playing politics.”

“Richmond Politics is in the way of us moving forward and making progress,” Page said.

“The time is now,” said Corey Stuckey, a senior at George Wythe. “Until we get the change that we’ve been seeking for so long, I don’t want to hear anyone saying they wanna stop fighting for change.”

At the news conference, the district’s city councilwoman, Stephanie Lynch, gave the school board a deadline. “I’m calling for school board members, superintendent, to present a plan to release an RFP in two weeks so we remain on schedule for the building of George Wythe,” she said. “Why, because our students cannot wait.”

Rizzi then told 8News she’s “not sure” if that demand is doable, adding that the board is being “set up for immediate failure.”

Councilwoman Lynch said if the school board fails to move quick enough, she will ask Mayor Stoney to negate the resolution just passed and take control of school building again.

“So that our kids can stay on track, start having input about what this school looks like, our community members can gather around the table and we can do this together,” Lynch said.

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