Frustrated members of the public urged the Richmond School Board on Monday to take action on the school system’s far-reaching problems with its facilities.
In a packed meeting room at City Hall, community members criticized the board’s lack of action. The meeting came three days after Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney sent a letter to the board also criticizing its inaction on the issue.
Stoney asked the board to present a plan Monday that would help fix the facilities.
RPS interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz presented an overview of the administration’s plan Monday night, but a full plan isn’t expected for the next few weeks.
The community members who spoke Monday night said they want action soon.
“You have been here for 11 months in this position and there’s no reason we shouldn’t have looked at a facilities plan by now,” Mariah White said, referring to the School Board. “These facilities need to be done.”
“It’s got to stop here,” she added. “You just can’t keep putting it off.”
About a dozen members of the community spoke, with most addressing the facilities problems.
The school system is facing crumbling facilities across the city. One school, George Mason Elementary, required about $130,000 in improvements just to keep the school open this year.
The School Board inherited the problems after years of deferred maintenance and neglect. Plans were presented, but none came to fruition. The latest version of a facilities plan, known as Option Five, was approved by the School Board in 2015. It would have closed 16 schools, built seven new schools and renovated the remaining 21 over 15 years with a combined estimated cost of $563 million.
Option Five stalled because of the city’s limited debt capacity. Community members asked the board to reconsider the plan, but a completely new plan is being drafted.
“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” said community member Brenda James. “We’ve been having this discussion on facilities for far too long.”
The board’s initial deadline for an updated facilities plan was Oct. 16. That deadline was missed — something Stoney said he was disappointed by in his letter Friday. Kranz hopes to have a full plan for the board’s Nov. 20 meeting before a more extensive conversation at its Dec. 4 meeting.
“We want to make sure this is right,” said 3rd District representative Cindy Menz-Erb, the chair of the board’s facilities and rezoning committee. “These are the hard decisions we have to make and I think it’s our time to make sure we get this right.”
In the overview of the new plan — for fiscal years 2018 through 2027 — presented Monday, Kranz focused on the school system’s projected enrollment numbers.
Kranz posed the question of how large schools should be and whether they need to be larger. A possible new E.S.H. Greene Elementary School that Kranz showed to the facilities committee on Oct. 23 could fit 1,036 students, which would almost double the school’s size. The committee has also discussed adding K-8 schools.
The school system’s projections, which also go through 2027, show a decrease in enrollment at the elementary level and an increase in middle schools and high schools, especially in South Richmond.
Kranz said that while it’s recommended the division gets about $17.4 million per year for annual maintenance, its current total is $5.5 million.
He listed the next steps for the plan as a presentation to the facilities committee and then the full board, community meetings, and eventually a joint meeting of the School Board and City Council.
“Any plan that gets developed is a comprehensive plan,” Kranz said, adding that any plan would require rezoning. “You have to use all the tools in your toolbox.”
“With every new construction component, there’s a rezoning component.”
Richmond voters could help force the city’s hand Tuesday when they vote on a facilities referendum.
If it passes, the referendum would go to the Virginia General Assembly with hopes that the city charter would be changed to require the mayor to craft a plan to modernize RPS facilities without raising taxes or say it can’t be done.
In a tweet Monday afternoon, Stoney said that while he expects the referendum to pass, he will not be voting for it “on principle.”
“Leaders don’t need a referendum or the GA to tell us we need to fund a facilities plan now or how to do it,” Stoney said in the tweet. “Council, School Bd. & I know it must be done. We need to do our job.”