While several Richmond School Board members called for debate Monday about the possibility of removing elementary students from the most downtrodden school building in the district, others advised caution at a time of transition.

In the crosshairs is George Mason Elementary School, a squat, century-old brick building in Church Hill long considered to be in worse shape than 43 others in Richmond Public Schools’ portfolio.

Teachers there sometimes wear surgical masks in class, and mark the day by wiping rodent droppings from students’ desks. Windows, heating and mechanical systems need at least $5 million in repairs. Decades of plumbing issues have left their mark.

“I’ll help carry boxes,” said 4th District Board member Jonathan Young.

But with 48 days remaining until students are scheduled to return, School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said her colleagues were “going down a slippery slope.”

“I think it is unfair to the administration, not giving them the opportunity to vet this process, to plan properly,” Page said after initially declining to allow a discussion of facilities issues. “You want to play politics at the expense of our children.”

Mason and a broader approach to re-energizing dormant talks of rezoning and right-sizing the district’s outdated schools were included on the agenda Monday but only as informational items. Page eventually voted for talks to proceed.

“The stories (about our schools) are disheartening, but I’m not quite sure if we’re hearing from the same people,” Page said. “When you’re carrying an agenda for other people, that’s concerning.”

The comment drew responses from 1st District board member Liz Doerr and 3rd District representative Cindy Menz-Erb, who have been studying facilities issues and helped draft options for removing students from Mason in the coming school year.

“I am trying to do what’s best for our kids, just like everyone else on this board,” Doerr said.

Menz-Erb said her desire to remove children from Mason boiled down to one thing: When she toured the building this summer, she could not imagine sending her kids there.

“If it’s not good enough for my kids, it’s not good enough for anyone’s kids,” she said.

The talks come a month after employees who work at the school wore surgical masks to the board’s June meeting in protest of conditions they said were unfair and unsafe.

A site coordinator for Communities in Schools told the board then that children sweltered in many classrooms and needed jackets in others, and that some teachers needed breathing masks to teach. She was unavailable for an interview Monday.

Board members said their testimony added to a growing sense of urgency surrounding the historic institution, which traces its roots back to the first African-American school in the Church Hill area.

The eight options the board is scheduled to consider include:

  • dispersing Mason students across Woodville, Fairfield, Chimborazo and Bellevue elementary schools;
  • moving students into Franklin Military, which would prompt Franklin students to shift to Community High School;
  • and shuffling Mason students to the former Clark Springs Elementary School building once Overby-Sheppard students are able to return to their North Side campus upon the completion of renovations there.

“I can’t imagine anyone would make a compelling case that their students, teachers and staff don’t deserve better than what they have by the start of school,” Young said.

Interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz said arranging the closure with so few days remaining before the new school year would be challenging.

“The timing of it is unfortunate; it’s just extremely tight,” said Kranz, who added that George Wythe High School and Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School are barely in better shape than Mason.

Cost estimates to remove students from the elementary school range from up to $35 million for a rebuilt, larger school on the high end to $100,000 associated with a few options that involve moving students around.

Inaction would require $5 million in emergency investments for boilers, mechanical systems and window replacements, which still would leave larger structural issues untouched, according to a rubric provided to board members.

“We’re not taking into consideration how this is going to impact staff teachers, the families, transportation,” Page said. “It’s a domino effect.”

The board ultimately voted to schedule a public hearing at George Mason for community feedback on the possibility of moving students.

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Meanwhile, the board pushed back on some aspects of an agreement with the state Board of Education on Monday, citing concerns about autonomy in a potentially decadelong pact to boost academic performance.

The memorandum that is set to come before the state board on July 27 emerged after Virginia Department of Education officials gave Richmond Public Schools low marks nearly across the board in a comprehensive review.

School division leaders invited the scrutiny in hopes of turning the district around, but some board members worry the draft plan from the state that would govern that transformation is too restrictive.

We need “to find a balance where we can get the oversight and review we hope to have from the state but also (preserve) autonomy,” said 2nd District board member Scott Barlow, a lawyer who authored the proposed changes.

Chief among Barlow’s concerns is a provision of the agreement that would require state officials to approve spending of state and federal funds. He asked that state officials instead review spending.

He also recommended loosening a proposed rule that the oversight remain in place for up to 10 years, during which the division’s schools all must meet the state’s full standards for accreditation.

Only 17 of the division’s 44 schools were fully accredited in the 2016-17 academic year, placing it among the worst-performing districts in the state.

Barlow’s motion to send the revisions to state officials was voted down by Page; Patrick Sapini, 5th District; and Felicia Cosby, 6th District. 7th District Board member Nadine Marsh Carter was absent.

“As representatives elected by our constituents to oversee administration of our school district, we still believe it is necessary to maintain a level of autonomy regarding the selection of our new superintendent and the expenditure of funds allocated to RPS,” reads a statement the board voted 5-3 to send to the Board of Education.

Some issues identified in the revisions had already been addressed, according to interim schools chief Kranz, who met with his state counterpart, Steven R. Staples, earlier Monday.

That conversation yielded a relaxed approach to the Richmond board’s selection of a new superintendent, who the state previously had specified must have demonstrated experience in turning around a struggling school system.

The news was welcomed by Young, the 4th District representative who has been outspoken in his desire to pursue a new schools chief with an entrepreneurial or military background.

The state also agreed to open mandated progress meetings between the board chairwoman and Staples to the entire School Board.

Kranz assured the board ahead of a vote on Barlow’s motion that Staples had no desire to micromanage Richmond’s operations.

“(The agreement) is not intended to be … usurping the power of the School Board,” Kranz said.

As of now, the corrective action plan the state has charged Richmond with implementing contains 49 individual mandates, which Kranz said will take between months and years to fix.

Those actions arose from a hard look at five categories the state assessed in an on-the-ground review last spring. Richmond scored lowest on leadership and governance and human resources tools.

The division also lost many points because its latest strategic plan, which expired in 2015, lacked a vision statement.

Of the 25 subcategories for which Richmond schools received a score, only two — professional development and support evaluation, and the legal counsel component — were considered to be fully implemented.

The division received 17 scores of one or below, including seven “zeroes” for categories ranging from evidence-based facilities and maintenance practices to hiring and retention customs.

Kranz warned that up to $30 million would be at stake should Richmond fail to comply with the terms of the agreement, but he added that the state had full faith in the board.

“They believe that in 10 years it can be done,” he said.

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