Concerns about RPS mold, safety issues continue to spread

George Copeland Jr. | 10/19/2023, 6 p.m.
Complaints about mold in several Richmond Public Schools have persisted since the beginning of the current school year.

Complaints about mold in several Richmond Public Schools have persisted since the beginning of the current school year.

A month ago, news reports stated that teachers at Boushall Middle School shared photos of what appeared to be mold growing on lockers, desks and chairs. And staff members at Fox Elementary, currently being housed at Clark Springs, complained about mold spreading across ceiling tiles, causing them to become ill.

During Monday night’s Richmond School Board meeting, members sought to address the complaints and other ongoing safety concerns.

J.H. Blackwell Preschool, Mary Scott Preschool, Maymont Preschool, Summer Hill Preschool, Elizabeth D. Redd Elementary School and Woodville Elementary currently are undergoing full building tests for mold, with regular communication provided to staff and families at impacted schools, according to a report from RPS administration officials.

The School Board unanimously approved an overview and list of other schools that may require mold testing, as recommended by RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras, at the board meeting at River City Middle School.

Yet those attempts to assure teachers, parents and others that the mold problem wasn’t being ignored failed to quell arguments and tempers throughout the meeting.

Board member Kenya Gibson repeatedly sought to adopt resolutions focused on fire and mold safety created by the Richmond Education Association. She also questioned the choice to not publicize the resolutions on the RPS Board’s dedicated website, fol- lowing the fires at Fox Elementary School and in the RPS bus garage.

“The optics don’t look good,” Ms. Gibson said. “And I want to give everyone on this board the opportunity to be on the right side of history.”

“We have had two buildings burn down, we had 190 violations before the start of school despite being told otherwise.”

Ms. Gibson’s efforts to bring the REA resolutions into school safety efforts were rejected twice during the meeting, first in an attempted amendment to the meeting agenda in a 2-7 to vote, and hours later in a 2-6 vote with Shonda Harris-Muhammed abstaining.

Board chair Stephanie Rizzi and board member Nicole Jones pointed to the legal counsel they had already been given to not publish that information, as well as the board consensus vote to not publicize the resolutions when pushing back against Ms. Gibson’s arguments and accusations of a lack of transparency and board members “trying to stop the truth.”

“We’re not just sitting here, not receiving or uploading or being part of a resolution,” Ms. Jones said. “We paid to get advice, and this was what we were advised to do.”

Other speakers threw doubt on the need for REA’s resolutions in the first place. Board Mariah White, noted that the mold and air quality reporting policy already in place by the RPS administration covered much of the same ground as the REA mold resolution.

Mr. Kamras also reminded the Board that Richmond Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Melvin Carter had cleared impacted schools for use after they had been investigated for safety violations.

“A total of 190 violations were identified in 18 Richmond Public Schools,” RFD Chief Carter wrote in a letter to Mr. Kamras. “However, none would have prevented the opening of those affected schools.”

Board members also challenged the idea that their choice to not publicize the resolutions indicated a lack of care for the city’s schools, but was instead allowing RPS officials and staff to address the problems and present the best solutions.

“We care deeply about these schools, and our students and our teachers,” Ms. Rizzi said. “So that narrative needs to die right here.”

The testing is the latest step RPS has taken at addressing an ongoing problem for the city’s schools, leading to complaints and calls for response from RPS staff, Richmond education leaders and community members. The RPS response has so far included indoor air quality assess- ments by outside groups such as France Environmental, based on RPS examinations and staff testimony.

Full building tests cost roughly $5,400 for each elementary school and $8,600 for each middle school and high school, according to RPS officials.

Meanwhile, a review of Boushall Middle School’s mold issue is scheduled for receipt this week.