Conflict of interest sparks tense discussion for RPS School Board

Holly Rodriguez | 8/4/2022, 6 p.m.
The Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center arose as a topic of discussion during the Richmond School Board meeting Monday night.

The Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center arose as a topic of discussion during the Richmond School Board meeting Monday night.

But the potential conflict between the School Board and the city, regarding rights and ownership of the facility in light of Mayor Levar Stoney’s Diamond District redevelopment plan, was not the cause of discussion. A conflict of interest for the Board’s legal counsel, revealed during executive session, was at issue for Vice Chair Kenya Gibson, 3rd District.

The public is not allowed to be present during the School Board’s executive sessions. Ms. Gibson said she believed the matter of the School Board’s counsel having a conflict of interest, and, whether or not the School Board had counsel to explore the board’s legal rights regarding the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center is a matter that should be discussed in public.

“We own a piece of property that Richmond City wants to purchase for development,” she said. “And now we are being told [our] legal counsel has a conflict of interest — it seems late in the game to be told.”

School Board Chair Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed, 6th District, disagreed. “Anything related to legal discussion should be done in executive session,” she countered.

Jonathan Young, 4th District, read part of the state code regarding closed meetings of public bodies in government before offering his opinion that discussing the board’s options, given the admitted conflict of interest by counsel, should be public.

The exchange became more heated when Dr. Harris-Muhammed again said, “I am not going to discuss legal matters in public.”

Ms. Gibson said the School Board is a public body required to have public sessions, and there are certain circumstances that do require closed sessions. But this was not one of those circumstances.

“. . . There is no litigation right now,” she shot back. “We are talking about whether or not we have a lawyer . . . a matter of public interest.”

Mr. Young made a motion for Dr. Harris-Muhammed and Mr. Kamras to identify if it is appropriate to solicit pro bono legal services to offer a legal analysis of the School Board counsel’s position. Stephanie Rizzi, 5th District, seconded, and the motion passed. Dr. Harris-Muhammed volunteered to provide a report on her and Mr. Kamras’ findings.

In other matters, Mr. Kamras provided an update on employment vacancies, transportation and food service employee vacancies. Early last month, Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico all reported teacher vacancies above 200. During the last two weeks of July, RPS cut teacher vacancies by 22 percent, from 209 on July 15 to 163 on July 29. Half of bus driver vacancies have been filled, from 18 to 9 covering the same period with five offers pending. Food service vacancies have been reduced by 25 percent, from 67 to 50. There also are 21 additional vacancies for custodians, nurses and social workers. Progress has been made, but a total of 243 positions need to be filled.

RPS has ramped up recruitment efforts, with sign-on bonuses and outreach, Mr. Kamras said. Mr. Kamras also reported that school lunch is changing for the coming school year. Students, teachers and staff can expect “full, in-house meal prep” at schools with fully operational kitchens. School cafeteria staff will receive food to be prepared on-site, instead of the prepackaged meals served last year. Food for several schools that do not have full kitchens will be prepared at “kitchen hubs” and distributed to those schools.

Regarding transportation, Mr. Kamras said RPS is analyzing enrollment data for route planning this upcoming year. Transportation schedules are scheduled to be ready by Aug. 22, one week before school begins.

Dana Fox, director of RPS school construction, gave a report on the status of the George Wythe High School and William Fox Elementary School construction projects.

This week at George Wythe, crews are working to identify any asbestos that may exist on the property and the civil engineer is working on early site work plans to submit to the City for approval. The CSX tract of land running from Westover Hills to Hopkins Road behind the school is being purchased by the City.

“There will likely be a shared use path through it — a path for walkers, bicycles, etc.,” Ms. Fox explained in an email. “That is a long-range plan for the City.”

RPS, RRMM, the design firm for the project, and the Department of Public Works met and will continue meeting to discuss use of the CSX tract, bus stops, access paths, and overall traffic patterns surrounding Wythe.

At Fox, six firms submitted proposals to be considered for the school’s renovation. Quinn Evans Architects was selected. The contract cost was reported to be a basic contract total of $1,598,791 with selected additional services totaling $385,286, for a total of $1,984,077. Debris removal has started in the auditorium area and will continue into the second floor classroom wing.