When the Richmond School Board found out in March that the cost to build three new schools had increased by $30 million, board members promised action.
The board in April unanimously approved a recommendation from schools chief Jason Kamras to have an outside review of the cost to rebuild and renovate city schools. The vote came 10 days after it was revealed that the division needed $140 million rather than $110 million to replace three outdated schools — George Mason Elementary, E.S.H. Greene Elementary and a new middle school on Hull Street Road.
“We want to make sure that there’s no discrepancy in construction costs going forward,” School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said at the time. “We cannot delay this process anymore. We want the right numbers.”
Nearly six months later, the review hasn’t started. The School Board has yet to see a request for proposals, meaning no company has even been considered for the review as the district begins working on next year’s budget cycle. The delay — the second time the study has been pushed back — troubles 3rd District School Board member Kenya Gibson because a plan put forward by the mayor uses figures officials have criticized.
Kamras said the school division is almost ready to begin asking companies to apply to do the cost review.
“We are extremely busy,” Kamras said. “We’ve focused most of our attention, frankly, on the maintenance pieces over the summer and the work around opening the new schools.”
Page said she wasn’t worried about the delay in starting the review.
“Are we more concerned with square footage or student achievement?” she said. “We always want to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, but student achievement has to be our focus.”
This isn’t the first time a school construction cost study has been delayed.
At its Oct. 1, 2018, meeting, the School Board gave its blessing to Kamras and others on a group of city and school leaders overseeing school construction — the Joint Construction Team — to pursue the independent review. Kamras told the board two months later that the effort was on hold because it would cost upward of $300,000 to do the study, more than the board said it would like to spend.
It took the cost of the three new schools surging by more than $30 million for school leaders to formally agree to study all 44 schools.
Kamras said that “in the most ideal world,” the review would be done before next year’s budget debate, which will officially start in January when the superintendent introduces his proposed budget for board review.
“I’m not sure how realistic that is,” Kamras said. “Even if it weren’t, the needs are several hundred million dollars, which we’re not getting in one traunch next year.”
He added: “What is most critical is we have a clear sense of the need as we ultimately update our facilities plan for 2023 when the city’s debt capacity opens up.”
The school division is planning to revisit its facilities plan as part of a citywide rezoning process. Kamras said he hopes to have an updated facilities plan that includes rezoning decisions and the new cost estimates by the end of this school year.
The school system is in the midst of rebuilding the three new schools using money generated through an increase to the city’s meals tax last year.
That increase — from 6% to 7.5%, in addition to state tax — was enough for the city to build the three schools, which were among five slated to be built in the first five years of a facilities plan approved by the School Board in December 2017. Woodville Elementary and George Wythe High were the others under that plan.
The $110 million projected cost attached to the three schools has increased 32%, to $146 million, in the 21 months since the board’s approval. (City officials raised the estimate from $140 million to $146 million in July.)
The school system is scheduled to find out how many of its schools currently meet the state’s full standards of accreditation on Monday. Last year, only 19 of 44 did.
Linda Owen, who represents the city’s 9th District, also said she wasn’t concerned about the delay because, in retrospect, the numbers would be inaccurate by now because costs are being driven up by the amount of construction happening in the region.
“I don’t see how they could have possibly given us useful figures,” she said. “It’s too far out for us to get any real help.”
The city’s debt capacity opens up in 2023, a fact Mayor Levar Stoney used last year in outlining a spending plan that would fund school construction for the next 20 years at a cost of $800 million, the same estimated cost previously given for divisionwide construction.
If the $800 million figure grows at the same rate — 32% — as the three schools, the price tag for rebuilding or renovating every school would be roughly $1.05 billion.
Stoney’s plan states the city could borrow $200 million for school construction between fiscal years 2024 and 2028; $212.2 million between fiscal years 2029 and 2033; and $237.8 million between fiscal years 2034 and 2038.
Stoney was among those asking for the third-party review this spring when the costs rose.
“The mayor is still ready and willing to partner on this analysis and to share in the costs, but it’s up to the School Board and RPS leadership to decide when they’re ready to move forward,” said Jim Nolan, the mayor’s spokesman.
The cost increases, city and school officials have said, can be blamed on bad estimates in December 2017 by former interim superintendent Tommy Kranz.
Kranz defended the numbers in the spring when the increases were first made public, saying his numbers were based on the information he had available to him at the time.
Stoney’s plan came in response to a ballot measure approved by city taxpayers in 2017 that called on the mayor to present a fully funded facilities plan to the City Council by Jan. 1 of this year.
“The city overwhelmingly supported a referendum requiring the mayor to provide a funding plan to modernize our schools,” Gibson said. “If the estimates the plan was based on were wrong, we need a new plan.”
Gibson, who first asked about the cost review at the Sept. 16 School Board meeting, said she would continue asking for updates “until the estimate is complete.”
The School Board is scheduled to discuss next year’s budget and budget calendar in October, according to its calendar. A specific discussion on the cost review is not on the calendar.
The new school year is off to a sparkling start at Blessed Sacrament Huguenot Catholic School, where the campus has been revitalized with fresh paint and new windows, repaired sidewalks and other cosmetic flourishes here and there.
That’s without even mentioning a new eye-catching playground that made the school’s youngest students beam when they finally got to romp around on it.
“The joy on their faces, it was like Christmas Day times 100,” Head of School Paula Ledbetter said with a laugh as she led me on a tour of the place last week.
The campus renewal was made possible by a gift that at this point has exceeded $1.2 million (and is still growing) from Keith and Kathleen Brower, a Midlothian couple, in memory of their granddaughter Arabella Brower, who attended the small private school in Powhatan County for three years. Arabella died of an undiagnosed heart condition in September 2015 at age 17.
But there is more to how this remarkable gift came to be.
The Browers had never even visited the school before the death of their granddaughter, who had left the school at the end of her 10th-grade year to move to Fredericksburg after her parents divorced. She died in the fall of what would have been her senior year.
Her former classmates reached out to the Browers to express their condolences, writing them letters and asking what they could do. They held a car wash to raise money for the Richmond SPCA in Arabella’s memory; painted the schools’ senior rock with “Be a Flutterfly,” Arabella’s childhood word for “butterfly”; and dedicated their yearbook to her. When a memorial service was held for Arabella the following spring on the Northern Neck, her former classmates postponed their prom so they could attend.
“Just phenomenal young people,” Keith Brower said in an interview. “Frankly, I don’t know how my wife and I would have gotten through the agony of Bella dying so young and so unexpectedly without the support of the folks at Blessed Sacrament.”
The Browers wound up visiting the school and experienced the same warm embrace their granddaughter had felt. They decided to endow a scholarship in her memory, and as time went on the relationship between the Browers and the school deepened, and last spring they approached Ledbetter and asked if she had a “wish list” for the school.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Is this real?’” Ledbetter recalled.
It was indeed. As the Browers’ largesse evolved, it grew to include a campus face-lift (previously, annual funding typically enabled the school to tackle only one major project a year, Ledbetter said, such as roof repairs) and the playground, technology needs and even a revamping of the school’s marketing efforts and website (still in the works) as a way to let more families know about a place that Ledbetter calls “a hidden gem.” The Browers have now endowed an additional scholarship and offered matching gifts over the next three years for the school’s annual fund campaign. The school’s chapel is next on the refurbishment list, and plans are in the works for repurposing the school’s auxiliary gym into an arts and sciences center.
Ledbetter said the Browers’ generosity has “truly been transformational” for the coed, pre-K- through 12th-grade school that is one of 30 schools within the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. The school attracts students primarily from Powhatan and Chesterfield counties, though from other localities around Richmond as well, and has an enrollment of 270, only 40% of whom are Catholic.
“It has definitely given new life, in a sense, to us,” she said.
Keith and Kathleen Brower met at a fraternity party in the late 1960s when he was a student at the University of Richmond and she attended Virginia Commonwealth University. He went on to a career in the military, eventually retiring as an Army colonel and embarking on a corporate career that led to his co-founding a consulting group that specializes in sourcing, which has grown exponentially in the six years of its existence. They returned to the Richmond area more than a decade ago.
Keith Brower laughed when I asked if they were in the habit of handing out million-dollar gifts.
“This is a first for me,” he said. “Look, I’m a retired Army officer. This is quite a big deal for us, but something my wife and I felt like we just had to do.”
Their granddaughter was born with a lung condition that caused breathing problems, which made her tire easily, though her grandmother recalled she never complained and enjoyed life to the fullest. She would play as hard as she could and then put herself to bed, even as a young child. She displayed a maturity beyond her years with a sense of humor to match.
“She was irreverent and funny ... droll and fearless, smart and artistic,” Kathleen Brower said Friday morning as we stood on the playground, noisily happy with spirited children. The playground will soon bear a sign with her granddaughter’s name. “She was a force in the world.”
Her grandparents said Arabella felt right at home at Blessed Sacrament from the moment in 2012 when she toured the school after moving to the Richmond area with her family, falling in love with the place and the people. She began attending the school in eighth grade and was saddened to leave following the 10th grade, her grandparents said.
People have asked the Browers about their motivation. On the one hand, it’s not easy to explain; on the other, it’s quite simple.
“We just want to make sure this haven is here for children for the next 100 years,” said Keith Brower, who noted his family is not Catholic though they appreciate the school’s focus on faith and values. “We’re going to do whatever we can to make sure that happens.”
There is also this:
“We just want to keep [Arabella’s] memory alive forever,” he said.
And in doing so, they get to support what he described as “a wonderful school” that’s provided “a tremendous lift for our spirits.”
“Random acts of kindness have unforeseen results,” Keith Brower said. “If that class hadn’t been so spectacularly caring and kind ... we never would have set up a scholarship and never would have gotten so engaged with the school.”
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The fate of more than 1,600 acres in eastern Chesterfield County once slated for thousands of homes and then a controversial industrial megasite will now house a solar farm and data center.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved plans cementing the future of the wooded property at the intersection of Bailey Bridge and Branders Bridge roads last week.
“When you look at this piece of property, you can see that it’s surrounded by a lot of development, and it was really just going to be a matter of time when it was developed,” said Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle, the Bermuda District representative, shortly before the board voted to approve the plan.
It was a quiet end to often pitched arguments about what could and should belong on the undeveloped swath amid residential developments.
Torch Clean Energy, a Colorado-based company, plans to build a solar farm providing up to 150 megawatts of power alongside a data center covering up to 1 million square feet, which will house rows of servers used for a host of digital age functions such as streaming videos, processing credit card payments and storing information.
The power drawn from the solar panels arrayed across hundreds of acres on the property will not directly feed the data center, but would instead go into the electrical grid, which Torch estimates will provide enough power to serve up to 28,000 homes. The electricity could equal the amount of power used by the data center, Torch has said.
Brennen Keene, a lawyer representing Torch, told supervisors that given the controversies surrounding previous development plans, Torch decided early on to “down-zone” the land from an residential and commercial area to an agricultural property with the solar facility and data center.
“This is a very tailored, targeted zoning that provides clarity to adjacent neighbors as to what uses can be there for now and going forward,” Keene said.
Keene told supervisors that it makes sense to pair a data center that uses a lot of power with a solar farm, adding that technology companies are often looking for ways to invest in renewable energy projects.
The solar company was drawn to the site because of its size and the transmission lines running through it, Keene has said. It pressed ahead with plans to build there despite the lightning rod controversies swirling around prior plans to build 5,000 homes and a failed attempt by the county’s Economic Development Authority to buy the land for heavy industrial use. That EDA plan was withdrawn last year.
The latest plan for the solar facility and data center has not generated the type of opposition those previous plans did, although echoes of those earlier controversies were evident at the Wednesday hearing where a half-dozen people spoke, most of them favorably about the solar and data center proposal.
Critics who mobilized against the megasite proposal have said they view the solar farm and data center plan as a better option for neighbors rather than having an industrial operation in the residential area.
Mike Uzel, a member of the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development who fought the megasite plan, told supervisors Wednesday that the data center plan was more attractive than the previous plans for the homes or the industrial use. Uzel said the latest plan entails much less traffic and delays any decision on whether to put a long discussed east-west freeway through the property until the solar farm is decommissioned, which could happen three decades into the future.
“I’m hopeful that this solar data center proposal will finally give citizens resolution to this long-standing question of what will happen on this property,” Uzel said.
One resident raised concerns about whether birds would be harmed by landing on the panels after mistaking them for a body of water. Sara Born, a Torch project manager, said that’s typically a problem when solar facilities in the desert don’t have water bodies for birds to land in.
“Someplace where you have a lot of water, the birds can distinguish pretty easily between solar panels and the water,” Born said.
Torch has estimated that the data center, which would be on 300 acres on the property, could entail an investment of $1.5 billion to $3 billion depending on which company or companies choose to locate there. The solar farm would take about $100 million to build and would put 800 to 900 acres of panels on the site.
The data center could require 2 million gallons of water or more to run the cooling systems that will chill the massive array of computer equipment, which generates a lot of heat as it runs. The plan calls for up to two water towers on the property.
Keene said Friday that the data center tenant has not been finalized. He said the proposal still requires additional state approvals. Keene added that the tentative plan is to start building the solar facility in late 2020 or early 2021. A timeline has not yet been set for building the data center, he said.
Phil Lohr, another megasite opponent, said at Wednesday’s hearing that the community had been able to work out issues directly with the developer to address residents’ concerns, including screening the facility from neighbors and ensuring the developer pays for water and wastewater improvements on the property.
“If you involve the citizens initially on these big cases or all cases, you can resolve a lot of issues before it gets to be a huge roomful of people shouting at you,” Lohr said.