Council member threatens to delay design funds for new George Wythe

Ronald E. Carrington | 12/2/2021, 6 p.m.
Will Richmond City Council stand in the way of transferring $7.3 million to Richmond Pub- lic Schools so an architect ...

Will Richmond City Council stand in the way of transferring $7.3 million to Richmond Pub- lic Schools so an architect can design a replacement George Wythe High School?

Based on discussions at a joint virtual meeting on Monday of the City Council, the School Board and Mayor Levar M. Stoney, that question is still up in the air as a council vote looms on the mayor’s request to allow the transfer.

The meeting ended without any resolution of the key issues of disagreement, most notably the number of students the new building should accommodate.

Ahead of an anticipated council vote on Monday, Dec. 13, at least one council member indicated he could support delay — and pushing back design and construction — until there is an agreement on whether the new building should accommodate 1,600 students as the School Board proposes or 2,000 students as city officials say is needed.

Councilman Michael J. Jones, 9th District, said that as chair of the council’s Finance Committee, “I guarantee you I am willing to hold funding until we get a plan, until we know where we are going.”

If Dr. Jones’ view is embraced by a council majority, it would be a blow to the School Board’s plan to award the design contract in mid-January.

During Monday’s meeting, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras distributed proposals submitted by nine design firms. The submissions also included different prototypes for a building that would accommodate 1,600 students.

The board has promoted that size as sufficient given a separate plan the city supports to develop another 1,000-seat high school in South Side that would focus on career and technical education. That high school is to go into a former tobacco factory that has been donated to RPS.

Dr. Jones was one of several council members expressing concern that a new George Wythe building would be overcrowded immediately if it could only accommodate 1,600 students.

Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch, 5th District, and Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, 2nd District, also forecast overcrowding. They also voiced frustration with the lack of community engagement in deciding what’s needed in a new high school.

“Will our school have multiple purpose spaces for community connectivity? How much community input will there be when the design is a prototype?” Ms. Lynch asked.

“We expected to see that in the proposed designs,” she said.

Dr. Jones said many families in his South Side district have voiced frustration with the School Board and the school building project because little has been done to resolve issues. He said he is deeply concerned about the School Board’s process that took place without any real engagement from the community, City Council or the city administration.

He assured the School Board members that City Council is not trying to do the board’s job, but wants to collaborate with RPS on the George Wythe project.

School Board Vice Chair Jonathan Young, 4th District, noted that RPS already has 2,500 vacant seats in its existing high schools and noted that George Wythe currently enrolls only 1,300 students.

Mr. Kamras said that the community would be engaged in helping to design the interior space once a design team and a prototype building has been selected.

The School Board, itself, is split over taking charge of developing the new high school, with five members supporting a robust role and four members eager to turn the project over to the city.

One advocate of RPS running the project is School Board member Kenya Gibson, 3rd District.

She urged the mayor and the council to respect the School Board and their decisions to keep the project on track.

“The city has placed every obstacle in our way to move forward to build new schools the right way for our children. This is absurd,” she said.