Teachers, parents and supporters of George Mason Elementary School lambasted the Richmond School Board on Monday over conditions at the nearly century-old building.
During a hearing at the school about its future, its staff members — several with a decade or more of service — were the first in line to itemize grievances and health concerns: rat droppings, leaking bathrooms and unexplained illnesses, to start.
With many voices, they demanded dignity and an awareness that their building is home to children who are already asked to shoulder more weight than any should.
The school — dubbed the worst in the division’s challenging portfolio — has become a symbol of the tension between a resurgent Richmond and what came before. But there is richness here, despite chronic disinvestment in a place often discussed in grave terms by those who live elsewhere.
“Our parents want what’s best for their kids, just like any other parent,” said fourth-grade teacher Hope Talley. “They speak (their fears) to us, we hear them, and we have to explain why their child had to do without heat today. That’s hard.”
Interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz told the crowd before opening the floor for comments that the best option for the school, which was last renovated in 1980, would be a complete replacement.
The School Board will discuss what to do about George Mason on Monday, said Board Chairwoman Dawn Page.
Long-simmering tensions over the building boiled over two weeks ago after two School Board members who toured the facility urged their colleagues to consider emergency action to move students and staff in September.
Kranz said the short-term fixes proposed then, including splitting up students across multiple other schools or shuffling Mason students to Clark Springs Elementary when it becomes vacant in January, were not sustainable.
“They would be last-minute moves, but I feel like something’s better than nothing,” said Tamara Taylor, whose two older children attend Mason. “I would like for them to knock it all the way down and start over, but it’s been this way for a long time. Who knows.”
Entangled legacies of Massive Resistance, concentrated poverty and broken promises all make the possibility of something more — eventually — hard to believe.
“At least since 2002, the good people of Church Hill have been given empty promises or at least empty rhetoric,” said Jonathan Young, who represents the 4th District on the School Board.
That’s especially true here, parents of Mason students said, in a place where children will still confront the acrid smell of urine while their peers 7 miles away will return to find the same issue fixed, thanks to $25,000 in donations raised by a parent teacher association.
Young made a motion to close the school but was denied consideration by Page, who said any action will wait until next week’s meeting.
Meanwhile, Kranz said a deep clean of the school’s bathrooms would occur as part of $105,000 in repairs slated to happen before Sept. 5.
“All that does is a touch-up,” he said. “Don’t take it for a renovation because it’s not.”
If the long-term plan was met with skepticism Monday, that’s because the $30 million needed for a new school is not there, officials who run the district have said.
The city’s debt capacity is maxed out through at least 2021, and Mason has not experienced the overcrowding that is squeezing schools elsewhere in the district.
Rust-colored splotches where enrollment exceeds capacity sprawl across the city’s South Side, Fan and West End on a map of elementary school needs compiled in the most recent facilities assessment.
East End elementary schools such as Mason, Bellevue and Chimborazo hover in a mellow orange that signifies all is well, from a numbers standpoint.
But those numbers don’t tell the full story, Mason staff members said Monday.
Although teachers have undergone extensive trauma training to help counsel students with challenges at home, the children are expected to encounter hardship at school, said one.
The number of students in need of asthma and allergy treatments keeps going up, said another.
Kranz said the building is safe and that he would never ask any Richmond student to learn in a place he would not send his own grandchildren.
“We never put students in an unsafe environment,” he said. “If this building was an unsafe building, we’d close it.”
Kranz said the state has told him Richmond could access $6 million in interest-free bonds to support renovations for Mason if the city is willing to increase its debt load.
Debt service is limited to 10 percent of the city’s general fund and school operating budget, a self-imposed rule that financial consultants say contributes to the city’s healthy credit ratings.
The city has about $8.5 million in capacity through 2021, and about $321 million combined between 2022 and 2026, according to a 2016 analysis by Davenport and Company.
The same report, presented to the School Board in May 2016, estimated that Richmond Public Schools’ capital needs would exceed $374 million over the ensuing decade.
It would take about $645 million to bring all of the division’s 44 schools up to the level of its newest facilities, a study found in 2015. A plan approved by the School Board that year to close 16 schools, build seven new and renovate the rest over a 15-year period was estimated then to cost $563 million.
A petition to put the issue of fully funding school replacements and renovations on November’s ballot is circulating and had more than 10,000 signatures as of Sunday.
The proposal to change the city’s charter, if approved by Richmond voters and the state General Assembly, would give Mayor Levar Stoney six months to develop a fully funded plan for overhauling the division’s facilities without raising taxes to pay for it, or declare the feat impossible.
“We have to do something,” said Nicole Richburg, a patient access coordinator at VCU Health who has two children at Mason. “My son has been sick 10 times in a row, and I can’t afford to miss work. Things have to change.”