School Board to build new Woodville; won’t merge with Fairfield Court

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/7/2023, 6 p.m.
The Richmond School Board plans to keep five elementary schools in operation in the East End in the face of …

The Richmond School Board plans to keep five elementary schools in operation in the East End in the face of shrinking enrollment that has left at least two schools half empty.

In a little noticed 8-1 vote Nov. 20, the board endorsed building a replacement for an aging Woodville Elementary that could hold 500 students, even though Richmond Public Schools reports that fewer than 250 students now attend Woodville.

The vote ended any consideration of merging nearby Fairfield Elementary School with Woodville to justify the new school’s capacity when it is built. Fairfield, located about five blocks north of Woodville, currently enrolls about 230 students.

Data from Richmond Public Schools and the Virginia Department of Education show that enrollment at Woodville and Fairfield plunged in the past 10 years as well as at least two other elementay schools in the East End, Bellevue and Chimborazo — with the greatest decline happening after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city and resulted in school closures for two additional years.

The board settled the issue of capacity for Woodville as the administration filed for funding from Virginia’s School Construction Grant Program to help cover the cost of developing a new school. A timetable for doing so has not been established.

In May, Richmond was awarded $26 million from the state program to support four other projects, part of the $356 million awarded in the first round from $450 million the legislature had provided.

The program closed applications for the final $80 million still available after expenses on Nov. 28.

Jonathan Young, the 4th District’s representative, cast the lone “no” vote, arguing that it would be “a waste of taxpayer dollars” to build a large new school that could be half empty when it opened.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, school divisions across the state are spending between $31 million and $53 million for new elementary schools or an average of $50,000 per student depending on the capacity.

Assuming a new Woodville would cost $31million, the new building would set a Virginia cost record of $124,000 per student if only 250 children were enrolled after it opened.

Cheryl Burke, the 7th District representative, garnered overwhelming backing for maintaining Woodville as a stand-alone school, arguing that closing schools can “rip the heart out of a community.”

Other members argued that elementary schools with smaller enrollments can provide a better experience for students and the ongoing effort to create a mixed-income community on the site of the now partially demolished Creighton Court public housing community will generate more children for Woodville.

The current Woodville, which RPS states has a capacity for 552 students, reported just 228 students enrolled as of Sept. 30. In other words, 59% of the seats were empty.

Ten years ago, Woodville enrolled 519 students for the 2013-14 school year, VDOE data show, while five years ago, the enrollment had dropped to 413 students.

The same loss of students has hit Fairfield, which has an RPS-rated capacity of 499 students. As of Sept. 30, just 227 students were enrolled, according to VDOE, or 44% of its capacity. Ten years ago, the school reported 562 students, while five years ago the school enrolled 456 students.

Overall, the five East End schools have 1,100 vacant seats already in East End elementary schools. The other three schools are Bellevue, Chimborazo and Henry L. Marsh III, which opened in 2021.

Bellevue, with a capacity for 395 students, had an enrollment of 195 students on Sept. 30, VDOE reported, down from 374 students enrolled in the 2013-14 school year and the 240 students enrolled in the 2018-19 school year.

Chimbarazo, which can house 560 students, had 388 students on Sept. 30, according to VDOE records, down from 467 students 10 years ago and 401 students five years ago.

The new Henry L. Marsh III, which has a capacity for 750 students, had 523 students on its rolls as of Sept. 30, VDOE reported, a bit more than the reported enrollment at the George Mason building it replaced, but still 227 students short of capacity.