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Bypassing School Board, Stoney Tries to Force George Wythe Redesign

Woman talking
School board member Kenya Gibson, during a 2019 meeting. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is moving forward with designing a new George Wythe High School, despite lacking the legal authority to build the new school. In April, the school board voted to take control over construction, arguing the mayor has overspent on previous projects. 

During a Wednesday press briefing, Stoney said he’s releasing a request for design proposals Thursday, kicking off the search for a company to design the new GWHS. He said the school board has 45 days to agree to collaborate, describing the move as "another effort for diplomacy.” 

“We may have lost our original timeline of 2024 due to the school board’s actions, but we are committed, we stand committed, to doing everything we can to accomplish the shortest possible timeline for procurement and for construction,” the mayor said. 

If the school board does not take up Stoney’s offer before design firms’ proposals are due in 45 days, the city alone will not be able to legally proceed with the construction of a new George Wythe. 

School board member Stephanie Rizzi, who represents the 5th district where GWHS is located, said Stoney’s move to pressure the board to collaborate “sets a dangerous precedent for democracy in our city.” She said the ultimatum by the mayor disregards the independence of the school board as a governing body, the majority of which voted in favor of the Schools Building Schools resolution. 

“This could have gone another way. The city could have said, ‘Okay, if this is what the board wants, let's work together to figure out how to do that.’ And I think they could have offered help and resources. Instead, they went on the attack,” Rizzi said in an interview. 

Stoney says under school board supervision, construction on George Wythe will not be finished until 2027, based on projections from the city’s procurement office. The school district’s own projected timeline is still unclear, as RPS lacks the staff and expertise to come up with its own projections in-house. However, board members have disputed the city’s timeline and say they can get GWHS done sooner than 2027. 

“Folks are taken aback by that timeline. It simply doesn't make sense,” said school board member Kenya Gibson, who first introduced the resolution to take the power to build schools away from the city, in an interview Wednesday. 

“This is really the opposite of what diplomacy looks like,” Gibson said. “The board that I'm part of, there was a majority who felt that it's important for schools to build schools.” 

Regarding the mayor’s ultimatum, Gibson indicated she’s not interested in collaborating with the city on building schools because she was dissatisfied with how previous school construction projects were handled: “The list of concerns and issues goes on and on. So, do I want to go through that process again? No.” 

This isn’t the first attempt Stoney makes to regain his seat at the table regarding school construction. Last month, he sent a letter to the school board proposing joint city-RPS teams to oversee the various steps of the process. The proposal would have kept the city in charge of building schools, but it would have granted RPS more direct involvement in the process. The board ultimately declined to address the mayor’s letter during a May 17 meeting.