Plans to overhaul Richmond’s outdated public school facilities took shape Thursday in the leaky bowels of an elementary school pilloried by parents and staff members alike as a health hazard and disservice to city children.
That building — Overby-Sheppard — could be replaced within five years by a new school project that proponents for years have cast as the linchpin of revitalization for an area once home to the Dove Court public housing community.
The prospect of a new Dove school to replace Overby-Sheppard has been a point of contention for years between the administration of Mayor Dwight C. Jones, which advocated for redevelopment, and a School Board resistant to direction about how best to spend limited dollars.
Among the district’s building priorities, schools on the South Side have taken precedence, owing to pockets of population surge that have overburdened some schools while seats remain vacant in others.
Those changes as presented Thursday include: rezoning Broad Rock Elementary School in combination with Oak Grove-Bellemeade and Blackwell elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding; building a new, larger Greene elementary; rezoning Francis, Reid, Miles Jones and Redd elementary schools; building a new Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School; and shifting Swansboro Elementary students to Westover Hills Elementary, which would be expanded to accommodate the other students.
North of the river, the Dove project stands alone among proposals for the first five-year phase of a 15-year, $563 million undertaking. Stuart Elementary would close and its students also would attend the Dove school under the proposal, which is slated to come before the School Board for adoption in the spring.
News of Dove’s inclusion was met with mixed reaction Thursday from those pleased to hear change may be coming and others who said five years was too long to wait.
One parent urged Assistant Superintendent Tommy Kranz to make repairs to the existing school now. Her children come home cold and have had to do work in the hallways after the lights went out in their classroom, she said.
“This is not even close to being the worst building in my portfolio,” Kranz said. That distinction belongs to George Mason Elementary School in the city’s East End, which Kranz said is over 100 years old.
All the same, he added, the building where about 50 parents, community members and school staff members gathered Thursday evening “isn’t one we should have our children in.”
Signs urging parents to “fight for a new Overby-Sheppard” at the meeting — the third in a series of community forums about overhauling the district’s facilities — were posted around the neighborhood Thursday by the project’s leading advocate.
“Those were mine,” said City Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, whose 6th District includes the school.
The city’s ability to take on debt in the short term may require officials to turn to private investors to provide initial bond financing to move forward, Robertson said.
The council is not discussing raising the real estate tax rate to fund construction, she said, but “at the end of the day, I’m going to say, the city may need to ask for some increase on fees and things, to make it work.”