The problems have only worsened since they were cataloged in plans proposed in 2002, 2007 and 2012 that have since collected dust on office shelves.
The latest iteration — in 2015 — brought fresh hope that Richmond Public Schools’ facilities woes would finally meet an end: Gone would be leaking roofs, ancient HVAC systems and the ear-busting din of elementary schools without functional walls.
But the city’s ability to take on debt for the heavy lifting envisioned by plan architects remains hamstrung by a decade of spending on big-ticket items such as a jail and some new schools.
Faced with the reality that the more than half a billion dollars needed to address the district’s buildings will likely not materialize, members of a freshman Richmond School Board on Monday signaled action on redistricting and rezoning — possibly within the year.
“I think as a board, as a new board, we will have failed if we neglect in this first year to initiate rezoning and consolidation of schools,” said Fourth District representative Jonathan Young.
“We are bleeding money hand over fist in our capital outlay.”
Last spring, the board’s then-members, none of whom remain, voted for what was then billed as a stopgap measure to maintain and expand portable facilities at overflowing schools in the city’s South Side.
The specter of rezoning or funding additions for Fox, Fairfield, Francis and Holton elementary schools also was raised.
“There’s a train wreck getting ready to take place,” Assistant Superintendent Tommy Kranz said then, adding that the district needed “to begin work tomorrow.”
Tomorrow has arrived.
There are 19 modular units at E.S.H. Greene Elementary School and 24 more at Broad Rock Elementary School. Enrollment is swelling at Elkhardt-Thompson Middle, as a result of a merger necessitated by the closure of a school building riddled with mold, and climbing at George Wythe High School.
The schools are aging, outsized in some places and cramped in others, resulting in a tangled mess of wants and needs that administrators say keep them up at night.
“We’re going to have to make some tough choices with the rezoning and redistricting processes to stop the bleeding,” Superintendent Dana T. Bedden told the board hours after Mayor Levar Stoney unveiled the first budget proposal of his administration to the Richmond City Council.
That proposal included an additional $7.3 million for school building needs through fiscal 2022, a fraction of the School Board’s request for $207.4 million.
Of that, about $105 million was to go toward right-sizing the district. The rest was slated for bus replacement and building upkeep.
Although budget talks between the board and the Stoney administration have been marked by cooperation uncharacteristic of city and schools leaders in recent years, not even the gleam of a fresh start and renewed commitment to cooperation can outshine the glaring realities of decades of deferred maintenance.
“RPS has never received the appropriate allocations to maintain our facilities. Just the basics — the bare basics,” said School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page, who represents the 8th District.
At George Mason Elementary School, maintenance workers recently replaced mechanical systems in 19 classrooms that for years had overflowed, damaging portions of floors that also had to be replaced.
Patching things is much costlier in the long run than building new, Kranz said. But even the comprehensive plan that he helped develop in recent years relies on a mixture of new construction, additions, redistricting and rezoning.
There’s no silver bullet, he told board members during a presentation on vandalism and past spending on school capital projects.
“Honestly, because of the way the zones are today and where the growth is and where the empty seats are located, it becomes a very significant challenge to address through redistricting and rezoning alone,” Kranz said.
Officials expected the first, five-year phase of what was initially pitched as a 15-year plan to cost $169 million.
The board included $8 million of that in its $41.6 million request for capital funds in the next fiscal year.
Stoney proposed $1.6 million for school maintenance in the 2018 fiscal year. The city will have only $812,000 for the year beginning July 1 to address its own mounting facilities needs.