The Fight Over Rebuilding George Wythe, Explained
Ian Stewart contributed to this report.
Tensions have been high over the last few months between Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and the School Board. In April, the board voted to take over school construction, as the city prepared to take on rebuilding George Wythe High School.
Those plans are at a standstill, with both the mayor and Richmond Public Schools claiming they can build schools better. The majority of the board says they can build for less money, while the mayor says he can build quicker.
The community, meanwhile, is growing impatient and tired of the infighting. During a June community event hosted by the Richmond Community Coalition, Rev. Robin Miles called on city officials to work together to complete the new GWHS as soon as possible.
“We want George Wythe High School built without delay. It's not terribly important to us how it gets done or who gets the credit, as long as standard practices are followed. What is important is that it does get done without needless delay,” Miles said.
More and more people are becoming vocal about this as the debate drags on. The overwhelming message from the community is: They want George Wythe rebuilt as soon as possible, and they want the politics to stay out of schools.
How did we get here?
in April, a 5-out-of-9 majority of the school board voted in favor of the Schools Building Schools resolution, which was put forward by board member Kenya Gibson. The resolution gives the school board the power to build its own facilities, taking that power away from the city and the mayor.
Gibson’s main argument for taking over school construction is that Stoney overspent on previous projects, and that the city’s overall handling of school construction has been inefficient.
In 2017, the board approved a plan to build five schools in five years, by 2022. That plan included the reconstruction of George Wythe, along with Woodville Elementary, which is also in urgent need of renovation.
Despite planning for five new schools, the city only built three before the money ran out.
Cardinal Elementary School was expected to cost $35 million, but came out to $42 million. Henry L. Marsh Elementary was supposed to cost $25 million, and it ended up costing $40 million. And River City Middle School, which was supposed to cost $50 million, came out to $64 million.
The numbers show that Stoney went over budget on the three most recent projects by about $36 million in total – enough to build another elementary school, such as Woodville, which in 2017 was projected to cost $20 million.
The mayor’s administration argues that the original cost estimates were projections based on the wrong data. “The plan that the school board approved didn’t have great numbers. It was essentially numbers that were written – round numbers, not exact numbers – that were written on the back of an envelope," Stoney said after an event at GWHS.
Superintendent Jason Kamras has also made this claim during an Education Compact meeting in May.
“My understanding is those estimates were developed several years ago, and that they were placeholders,” he said. “I think we can agree that there are always escalations due to inflation and the normal march of time.”
The majority of the board has largely rejected this explanation and says the cost overrides are partially due to the speed at which Stoney constructs schools. They say Stoney’s process delivered schools quicker, but at greater expense, than the school district’s proposed method. Gibson says RPS can build schools cheaper and with fewer unexpected costs.
Jim Nolan, a mayoral spokesperson, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch the city has $200 million set aside for school construction. The new GWHS is expected to cost around $140 million.
How has the mayor responded to the Schools Building Schools resolution?
Stoney has made several attempts to convince the school board to collaborate with the city.
In May, he sent a letter to the board suggesting a new plan where the city and RPS would share several joint construction teams. This plan would have given RPS a bigger role in the construction process, while keeping the city involved beyond just funding the projects. The school board declined to address this proposal during a meeting.
Then in June, he went ahead and kickstarted the process of rebuilding GWHS. The mayor put a call out for design firms to present their bids, despite lacking the authority to move forward without the school board’s consent. He sent a letter to school board members where he offered to pass control on to them once RPS hires a full construction staff. So far, the board has not addressed this offer either.
The school board will hold a community town hall event on July 13 to publicly discuss this action by the mayor. RPS has until August to respond to Stoney’s proposal. If they don’t, the mayor can’t legally proceed with designing the new GWHS on his own.
How long will this ongoing battle actually delay the reconstruction of George Wythe?
At this time, the earliest expected date for when a new GWHS could open is January of 2025.
That means the school’s rebuilding has technically already been delayed, since city officials agreed to include GWHS in a five-year plan that was supposed to conclude in 2022.
When the school board first approved their Schools Building Schools resolution, Stoney said his goal was to have GWHS finished by 2024. And he says the school board on their own cannot deliver a finished GWHS until 2027 at the earliest, citing the city’s construction experts.
The mayor’s team projects that the board won’t start to hire its own staff until this October, and it won’t pick a design until July of next year. They also predict the board wouldn’t be able to actually put shovels into the ground until 2025.
One of the main causes for a delay would be that the Richmond school district does not have its own in-house construction and procurement team. Opponents of the Schools Building Schools resolution say relying on the city’s experts for construction projects means RPS doesn’t have to spend time hiring its own staff.
The Richmond school board has started preparing to hire a team. In May, board members approved three new positions to oversee school building. But Superintendent Kamras estimates the district will need 16 people to oversee construction.
Board members have disputed the mayor’s accusation that they’re delaying the rebuilding of GWHS, but they haven’t been able to produce a timeline projection of their own. They say this is because, again, RPS does not have its own in-house construction staff to make that prediction.
How do other localities in Central Virginia oversee school construction?
In Chesterfield, the county has to approve the money for the school district to build new schools— which is also how it works in Richmond, where the city oversees the money. But in Chesterfield, the school district is in charge of school design and bidding of contracts.
Also, while RPS expects they’ll need 16 people to handle construction, in Chesterfield, it’s basically just two staff members who handle everything. Those two staff members then contract with architects and the rest of the construction and procurement staff needed.
One of the two people overseeing school construction in Chesterfield is Chief Operations Officer Josh Davis. He plans where new schools are built. He also helps the superintendent and school board develop a capital improvement plan, which is eventually funded by the County Board of Supervisors.
He says Chesterfield has typically been successful at building schools without going over budget. For example, the recent Reams Elementary was done on a $25 million contract, and even after additional costs, the country expects to meet their overall budget of $30 million for the school.
“I think we've had some good practice. We've got a design that's been able to be replicated by multiple general contractors. I would call it a low-risk design. And we've just had a track record of getting these buildings up in 20 to 22 months, every time,” Davis said.
Davis says Chesterfield’s school buildings generally come out on time and under budget, even with last-minute change orders — like touchless water fountains that became a need during the pandemic. In fact, that’s a big point of pride both the superintendent and county officials highlight at each ribbon cutting.
Chesterfield has had issues with overcrowding in schools, but overall, their construction efforts have gone smoothly for almost a decade now. Davis credits that success to a joint effort between the county and the school district.