School Board moves on plan for 4 new schools

4/13/2018, 8:32 a.m.
The Richmond School Board has started the process to replace four aging school buildings, three in South Side and one ...

By Ronald E. Carrington

The Richmond School Board has started the process to replace four aging school buildings, three in South Side and one in Church Hill.

At its meeting Monday night, the board voted to direct the city to issue requests for proposals by May 1 for new buildings to replace George Wythe High School, Elkhardt-Thompson Middle and E.S.H. Greene Elementary in South Side and George Mason Elementary in Church Hill.

Construction would start by April 1, with the two elementary schools opening by mid-August 2020 and the middle and high schools in August 2021, officials said.

“In my discussion with the city, it is my preference that we start off all four schools at the same time knowing that the middle and high schools will take longer to complete,” Superintendent Jason Kamras told the board.

Funding for the construction would be leveraged by the city’s meals tax hike of 1.5 percent that goes into effect July 1. The $9 million the tax hike is expected to generate would be used to pay the construction debt on the estimated $150 million project over the next five years.

Several board members described it as a welcome step toward providing a positive and healthy environment in which students can learn.

The School Board has been struggling with how to replace public school buildings that have become rundown and unhealthy. Parents and teachers told the board at public hearings last year about mold on classroom ceilings, rodent droppings on desks, heating and cooling systems that don’t work and malfunctioning bathrooms in many of the old schools. Age and a lack of resources for maintenance have taken their toll. George Mason Elementary was built in the 1880s, while Greene Elementary was built in 1954 and Elkhardt-Thompson and Wythe in 1960.

Board members Linda B. Owen, who represents the 9th District where Greene Elementary is located, and Cheryl L. Burke, who represents the 7th District where George Mason is situated, said they want the new schools to reopen with new names.

Greene Elementary became a part of the RPS system through the 1970 annexation of part of Chesterfield County and is named after a former Chesterfield superintendent, Ms. Owen said. Ms. Burke said George Mason’s name should be changed because Mr. Mason “was a slave owner.”

Mr. Kamras proposed, and the board adopted, naming a committee composed of staff, students, family members and School Board members to choose the new buildings’ designs by mid-July. A committee would be named for each new school.

“We will ask for designs of schools that have already been built from surrounding counties,” Mr. Kamras told the board. “This will save time and money. Each selection committee can go and visit the buildings and decide what they like and don’t like about the facility’s design.”

Ms. Burke urged the board to ensure that Richmond’s minority contractors would be included in the bidding and construction process.

“It is very important that minority-owned businesses are part of the building team and have an opportunity to bid on the project,” Ms. Burke told the board. “We have so many children in our school system whose parents own construction companies. The board needs to make sure that they have support and buy in.”

Mr. Kamras said he would look into the city’s process and get back to the board with information.

In other business, Mr. Kamras updated the board on his 100-day plan, the deadline for which is May 11.

He said he has visited all 44 of the city’s public schools and held town hall meetings with parents and community members in six of the city’s nine districts. The next meetings will be held in District 2 from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at William Fox Elementary School, 2300 Hanover Ave.; District 6, 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, 1000 Mosby St.; and District 4, 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at Lucille M. Brown Middle School, 6300 Jahnke Road.

In addition to meeting individually with the nine School Board members, Mr. Kamras said he has met with city and state representatives and the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, has been selected to conduct an “equity audit” of all RPS functions. The audit is to conclude by mid-July, he said.

He also noted that the last two of three teacher recruitment events, specifically to hire teachers for schools that have not yet achieved accreditation, will be held April 21 and 26.

Also, the RPS High School Student Advisory Cabinet was launched March 20.

The Kamras family and School Board are to walk the Richmond Slave Trail on Saturday, April 14, and visit The Valentine’s Nuestras Historias: Latinos in Richmond exhibit on April 28 and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia on May 5.