Parent’s FOIA request shows more to RPS 2018 toilet paper debacle

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 4/19/2019, 6 a.m.
Richmond Public Schools expects to finish the current school year with plenty of toilet paper, paper towels and cleaning supplies ...

Richmond Public Schools expects to finish the current school year with plenty of toilet paper, paper towels and cleaning supplies at each of its buildings, according to Michelle Hudacsko, chief of staff to RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras.

There is sufficient funding, and instead of a staff member being assigned to take orders from schools and get them filled, the “schools receive automated janitorial supply deliveries so that they don’t have to place orders. We also keep a small reserve on hand, if needed,” Ms. Hudacsko stated in response to a Free Press query.

That’s a far cry from last year when at least 40 of the school system’s 52 buildings, including the Richmond Technical Center, ran short of the essentials, resulting in a small brigade of parents and others pitching in to provide toilet paper and paper towels.

Cindy L. Anderson, an RPS parent and businesswoman, created a fundraising site to generate donations and then played a key role in purchasing and delivering the supplies in an effort to resolve the embarrassing situation.

She credits teacher Mary Gresham with issuing the first social media alert on May 31 about a shortage of toilet paper and paper towels and that there was no money “in the custodial budget.” Ms. Anderson also praises Thea Ward, owner of World of Mirth in Carytown, for allowing her store to be used as a drop-off point for the supplies that flooded in, as well as the volunteers who supported the effort and drove the supplies to schools.

While RPS operations manager James Oliver was held responsible for the debacle and fired after 49 years with the school system, the reality is far different, according to a 2018 chain of RPS emails that Ms. Anderson later secured through a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to the emails, Mr. Kamras failed to consider the requests for money for the supply budget an urgent matter and then downplayed the problem.

The emails show that Mr. Kamras received a request to shift $50,000 to the depleted custodial supply budget on Wednesday, May 23, but didn’t approve it until nine days later on Friday, June 1. The delay only made the shortage worse.

As social media began to blow up Thursday and Friday with posts from concerned teachers and parents, and as media inquiries began flowing in about the lack of toilet paper at schools, Mr. Kamras issued a tweet Saturday, June 2, stating, “We don’t need folks to donate. A couple of schools had issues on Friday. That’s unacceptable, and I’ve made that abundantly clear to the RPS team. But I guarantee every school will have supplies on Monday morning (June 4).”

Ms. Anderson saw the tweet and immediately responded that Mr. Kamras was understating the situation. She also told the Free Press this week that Mr. Kamras did not follow through on his guarantee, noting that she and other volunteers continued to deliver toilet paper to schools through Thursday, June 7.

According to a summary of the events that Mr. Oliver later provided as he sought to keep his job, he began hearing from Ronald Horton about the need to replenish supplies in March. Mr. Horton was in charge of taking supply orders from schools and ensuring they were filled and delivered.