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Richmond Officials Throw Jabs Over School Construction

Marquee sign
The marquee sign in front of Richmond's George Wythe High School. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

Tensions are high and continue to escalate between members of the Richmond school board and the city administration as a power struggle unfolds over school construction.

Last week, a majority of school board members approved a resolution introduced by Boardmember Kenya Gibson to shift full control over future school construction away from City Hall and to the school district. The legal repercussions of the vote remain unclear.

If binding, the “Schools Building Schools” resolution would give the school board full power over designing, planning and building new schools. It also gives the board control over the bidding process for new construction projects.

Opponents of the resolution say it could delay the reconstruction of George Wythe High School, which hasn’t seen a renovation in decades. During a Monday press conference, several city officials called on a crowd of about 25 people to put pressure on the school board to rescind the resolution.

“I’m fired up,” Board Chair Cheryl Burke said as she began her remarks. “I would like to stand here and tell you we are going to change this around. But I bring you bad news: We have to have five votes. We only have four votes. What are y’all going to do?”

Burke seemed to insinuate the school board will vote on a motion regarding Gibson’s resolution during Monday’s upcoming board meeting, although no such motion is scheduled in Monday’s agenda.

People standing wearing masks
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney stands with other city officials at George Wythe High School. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

Superintendent Jason Kamras says if the school board took over school construction, it would inevitably delay the modernization of GWHS. According to a presentation uploaded ahead of the meeting, Kamras is expected to double down on this claim during the April 19 school board meeting.

"Assuming the new team members are in place by the beginning of 2022, and that Board takes a design-bid-build approach to construction, we should expect a new Wythe to be completed by the Fall of 2027,” the document says.

But most members of the school board reject the city’s claim that the resolution will delay the rebuilding of GWHS. Boardmember Stephanie Rizzi told VPM the school board can “absolutely get it ready” by the city’s deadline.

Rizzi and Gibson, along with the three other board members who approved the resolution: Mariah White, Jonathan Young and Shonda Harris-Muhammed, signed a letter to the press over the weekend where they commit to a “2023 timeline to begin construction of George Wythe High School.”

“George Wythe High School is a priority,” the letter reads. “It is imperative that future school construction is subject to both a competitive bidding process and additional accountability and oversight. We must avoid paying more than necessary to ensure we can have as many students and teachers in new facilities as soon as possible.”

During Monday’s press conference, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch said she will call a special meeting between members of the school board and the city council on Thursday to discuss the board’s plan to build a new GWHS by 2023.

“I am asking for the school board members, as well as the superintendent, to come and present a plan of how they would keep George Wythe’s building on track,” Lynch said. “And if they are unable to do that, and I want them to also commit to get an RFP out in two weeks… so if they can’t do that, I’m going to ask the Mayor to negate the resolution.”

When asked if Mayor Levar Stoney can do that, Lynch said, “Sure he can. He could do that. Then I guess the school board could challenge him, we could be in a civil suit, it could be crazy. But this building is not getting delayed.”

Lynch said if the board is able to show a path forward for rebuilding GWHS by 2023, she’s willing to discuss transferring power over school construction to the board for future projects.

Stoney says his office is still in the process of seeking legal counsel from the City Attorney regarding whether the school board’s resolution can take effect. He declined to comment on whether his administration would help the school board pay for staff to plan future construction projects.

“It sounds like there’s members of the school board who want to review what happened last Monday, so until that process is done and complete, I’m not going to go comment any further on whether or not I will be providing money for schools to pay for staff,” Stoney said.