Across the nearly century-old hall from the boiler room that keeps interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz up at night, three smiling children painted onto a bulletin board wave from a field of flowers.
“When You Enter … You Are The Reason I’m Here!,” reads the door to an adjacent art room in the low-slung home of the George Mason Elementary School Jaguars.
Here, and in two music rooms next door, teachers wear surgical masks when the rotten-egg smell of natural gas leaks into the hallway. That happens up to a half-dozen times a year, Kranz estimates, and when it does, the fire department and city officials respond to the school in Church Hill.
An open records request for inspections of Mason and the gas leak was not fulfilled last week.
“It is safe — we wouldn’t let students or staff be somewhere that wasn’t,” Kranz said Friday, from the bowels of the school that emerged last Monday as a flashpoint in the decades-long debate over what to do about the district’s aging, outdated buildings.
A fresh crop of Richmond School Board members has inherited old problems, but whether they can be the group to correct them remains unclear. Discussions about shuttering George Mason — openly labeled by school officials as the worst building in the district’s portfolio — stoked both optimism and cynicism as the board prepares to confront the same obstacles that hobbled its predecessors.
Chief among them: The money isn’t there — at least not now. The district has only $14 million in capital funds reserved for planning and executing an overhaul that will likely include new construction. That number is unlikely to change significantly until at least 2023, when city officials hope to pay off some debt and take on more.
“Until we get the money to deal with this, we’re just going to keep dealing with the same problems year after year after year,” said School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page, 8th District. “We’ve had plan after plan after plan to fix things, and what has changed?”
Still, some are pressing for the division to find creative solutions to fix deplorable conditions across older buildings. A sense of urgency and frustration has spurred school-specific and citywide grass-roots activism around school building needs.
A petition to fix relentless heating and cooling issues; overhaul acrid, leaking bathrooms; and address rodent and pest problems at Mason has garnered nearly 6,000 signatures online.
Meanwhile, Paul Goldman, who served as senior adviser to prominent Mason Elementary alum and former Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, is collecting signatures to put the issue on November’s ballot. Wilder, a former governor, did not respond to an interview request.
If Goldman and allied groups working to force the issue prevail, voters will choose whether to require Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to develop a fully funded plan to fix school buildings that isn’t built on tax increases or declare the feat impossible. He’d have six months to do it.
City and school officials have largely been reluctant to take a public stand on the effort.
“If you’re not out there trying to solve the problem, you are the problem,” Goldman said. “You can’t just wish something to happen — you have to actually go out and do it.”
Goldman pointed to another effort with local roots as a possible solution: A bill introduced in May by U.S. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — also a Richmond resident — would amend the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit to apply to school buildings that continue to operate as schools.
The hope would be to incentivize private investment, according to a release that estimated more than 30 Richmond Public School buildings would be eligible for the benefit.
“These politicians fly all over the place on our dime to study other cities and go to conferences,” Goldman said. “How about they go to D.C. and lobby for something that could save Richmond millions on school construction?”
A sense of urgency was what School Board members Liz Doerr, 1st District, and Cindy Menz-Erb, 3rd District, cited Monday when they rolled out options for moving students out of Mason before the school year begins. The pair had been charged with examining facilities issues. A formal ad-hoc committee was set up at the meeting.
“I think there are liabilities to consider with sending kids back into George Mason without doing anything,” said Menz-Erb, who said she felt compelled to act after touring the school.
What followed was a tense moment for a board that has prided itself on collegiality. Page left her spot at the head of the table to react personally to the proposals, accusing Doerr and Menz-Erb of being unfair and self-interested.
“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 even allow a discussion of facilities issues. “You want to play politics at the expense of our children.”
Page declined to elaborate in an interview Friday, and said she had not been in contact with either member to discuss the matter since the meeting.
“We have to allow the administration to properly vet these issues and come up with a plan,” Page said. “Look, no one wants the children learning in a deplorable facility; I’m a parent as well and I want what’s best for every child in the city of Richmond.”
What’s best extends beyond ripping out old bathrooms and patching peeling plaster, said Murray Withrow, a parent of three whose two older children attend George Mason.
“Take Martin Luther King Middle, for example,” Withrow said. “The new building communicates something to families — that they matter and deserve to take pride in their school — but it’s still very much a struggling school, academically and socially.”
Withrow said that as a parent, he is concerned about broken air-conditioning units, faulty heat and the natural gas leak, but he is also concerned with students’ social and emotional well-being.
“Safety has to come first, absolutely, but many of these kids are dealing with trauma and need extra support,” he said.
They also need access to a courtyard not choked with foot-tall weeds, bathrooms that don’t initiate a gag reflex, and rooms with windows that don’t allow precious heat to escape from half-inch gaps, he said.
Still, “I’m not extremely happy about any of the options” presented at Monday’s meeting, Withrow said.
Among them: dispersing Mason students across Woodville, Fairfield, Chimborazo and Bellevue elementaries; 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 return to their North Side campus upon the completion of renovations there.
Not acting could prompt the need for up to $5 million in repairs to mechanical systems, according to information provided last Monday.
Kranz said he and a team of school facilities workers convened Tuesday to begin vetting the options. That group is expected to report back its preliminary findings Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Kranz said Friday, as he walked through the school’s half-cleaned hallways, surveyed leaky bathrooms and took note of air-conditioning units that were blowing hot air.
He recently oversaw the replacement of 19 cooling units and ordered floors ripped out and repaired across the school.
“None of our buildings should be in the shape they’re in,” Kranz said.
But it’s not hopeless, said 5th District School Board member Patrick Sapini, who visited Mason for the first time Friday.
“It’s similar to what I saw at George Wythe,” Sapini said, standing in a music classroom across from the boiler closet. “There are problems, but I have a different perspective on problems, poverty. My family is from Haiti, and I have relatives still over there.”
A public hearing on whether to take immediate action on George Mason is scheduled for 6 p.m. on July 31 at the school, 813 N. 28th St.
Attendees will be greeted by black-and-white portraits of smiling students and a bulletin board in the main lobby that references division slogans:
“Building a better George Mason. On the road to glory.”