School Board holds nose to approve overcrowding plan

Joey Matthews | 2/12/2016, 4:51 p.m.
Members of the Richmond School Board approved a $19.1 million plan designed to help address huge overcrowding problems at several ...

Members of the Richmond School Board approved a $19.1 million plan designed to help address huge overcrowding problems at several South Side schools.

Prior to the 8-0 vote on Monday, several board members and Assistant Superintendent Tommy Kranz, who oversees the district’s facilities and who presented the plan, voiced concerns that it is a only a short-term fix to a pressing, long-term overcrowding problem and is not a wise use of taxpayer dollars.

“I couldn’t recommend this plan,” Mr. Kranz frankly told the board prior to the vote.

In a statement on the front of the four-page proposal, Mr. Kranz said the plan approved Monday “does not represent the most prudent use of taxpayer dollars to address the school district’s aging and declining facilities, and its capacity needs going forward.”

However, he said it likely was the only overcrowding plan considered by the board during the past year that might gain the backing of Mayor Dwight C. Jones and the City Council during budget negotiations.

School Board Chairman Jeffrey M. Bourne, 3rd District, concurred with Mr. Kranz’s bleak assessment.

“We have been put in a position where we’ve got to do the best we can with what we have,” he said. “These are short-term solutions that it sounds like will exacerbate our long-term problems.”

Board member Kristen Larson, 4th District, echoed similar thoughts.

“I’m disappointed we’re going to approve what it feels like is a Band Aid to our bigger issues.”

The plan calls for the district to purchase modular units at Broad Rock and Greene elementary schools that it has been leasing and convert them into permanent facilities, and add additional classrooms. Modular units also would be added at Reid, George Mason and Westover Hills elementary schools.

Some of the money also would be used for landscaping at the South Side schools and to fix heating and cooling, storm water and parking problems.

The school district also plans to “modernize” parts of the Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School by installing air conditioning in the gymnasium and replacing insulation on piping.

The plan now goes to Mayor Jones, who asked the board in a Jan. 28 letter to specify what they would do with the funds before he would consider releasing the money.

A week earlier, the School Board approved a $293 million budget proposal that includes a request for an additional $18 million in spending for fiscal year 2017. Part of that would go to fund a pay upgrade for most teachers and fund the district’s academic improvement plan.

Mayor Jones has forcefully remarked several times, including most recently during his State of the City address on Jan. 28, that he does not believe the city can afford to provide the entire $18 million in additional funding the board is seeking.

He also has dismissed notions that the city could afford to bankroll an ambitious $600 million, multiyear plan the board backed in a vote last summer that would pay for a new elementary and middle school on South Side, as well as provide for major renovations to several other schools to address the burgeoning student population.