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.

On March 13, 2018, an email from Mr. Horton to Mr. Oliver and Deidra Starkes, an administrative assistant in the central office and later to RPS’ new chief operating officer, Darrin Simmons Jr., stated that Mr. Horton had orders from 30 schools and could not completely fill them because the custodial supply budget was running short.

Then on April 12, Ronald M. “Bobby” Hathaway Jr., an acting supervisor for heating, cooling and ventilation whom Mr. Kamras had promoted over Mr. Oliver and Mr. Horton to manage all facilities, received notice of the brewing problem through an email from Rose Ferguson, principal of George Mason Elementary School.

Ms. Ferguson emailed that bathroom supplies were running low. School Board member Cheryl Burke, 7th District, shared that email with Mr. Kamras and other members of the administration in trying to find out what was happening.

Mr. Horton, a 41-year RPS veteran, then followed up with his own email on April 13 notifying Mr. Hathaway and the custodial staff that “due to budget constraints,” he was buying only essential supplies. “Considering the shortage I would solicit any assistance that you can provide in developing the custodial budget.”

On May 17, after the available funds had virtually dried up, Mr. Horton issued another email appeal for help.

In an email to Mr. Hathaway and to RPS Budget Director Lynn Bragga, Mr. Horton stated, “We currently have only $503.00 remaining in the custodial budget. I also have at least 21 schools (that) have submitted orders for custodial supplies. Not sure at this point what is expected. Several requests have been made to replenish the custodial supply budget, but to no avail. Please assist wherever possible.”

Mr. Hathaway then responded with a request for additional information, including Mr. Horton’s estimate of custodial needs through the end of the year. Mr. Horton’s estimate: $49,723.97.

On May 23, Mr. Hathaway sent an email reassuring Mr. Horton: “We should have funding later today or tomorrow to help,” Mr. Hathaway states, apparently after learning that the requisition for funding had reached the superintendent’s desk. But nothing changed.

On Thursday, May 31, Mr. Horton reported, “The amount available in the custodial supply budget was $1.18.”

That day, Mr. Oliver said he made urgent calls to Mr. Hathaway about securing money for supplies, but was told that Mr. Hathaway could not do anything.

Mr. Oliver said he and Mr. Horton also met that day with Mr. Simmons, who “expressed no interest in neither our account of what had occurred nor our knowledge of how it could have been avoided.”

“Instead, he only wanted to know how many schools (would receive) toilet paper and paper towels on Friday, June 1,” Mr. Oliver wrote.

Mr. Simmons apparently did not tell Mr. Oliver and Mr. Horton that he had signed off on the request on May 23 to shift funding to boost the custodial supply budget.

Mr. Oliver also told Mr. Simmons of emails notifying Mr. Hathaway of the problem.

Mr. Horton separately stated that once Mr. Kamras signed the form allowing the custodial budget to be replenished with $50,000, he was able to fill back orders from 21 schools. According to the budget office, the transfer of funds was accomplished at 9:20 a.m. June 1.

Mr. Horton stated that supplies began moving Monday and Tuesday to most of the buildings, though some schools had to wait several more days. He said he and his brother, Frederick Horton, a 30-year RPS veteran, quit after Mr. Oliver was fired.

“These emails provide a completely different picture from what we were told,” Ms. Anderson said. For her, Mr. Kamras’ handling of this challenge “has undermined my trust in his ability to handle larger problems.”

Mr. Kamras did not respond to Free Press questions about the situation.