City's First Charter School Faces ADA, Fundraising Dilemma 

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The Richmond Public Schools are blessed with a portfolio of architecturally stunning early-20th-century buildings, but the blessing is also a curse for the upstart charter school organizers working to open the Patrick Henry School for Science and Art.

The school, which plans to reopen the 87-year-old Patrick Henry Elementary building next to Forest Hill Park, is in the midst of a million-dollar drive to cover the cost of its planned opening next fall. The school's charter president, Debbie Butterworth, says the effort is off to a rousing start despite a depressed economy.

“We have had over $30,000 in donations and those are all just the private, personal donations,” Butterworth says, noting too a $100,000 grant received Sept. 14 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, made possible by the school's planned eco-friendly curriculum. Butterworth says she's “confident” the school will receive an additional $300,000 federal charter schools grant, expected to be announced Oct. 28.

But Patrick Henry boosters also face the daunting task of paying for expensive upgrades needed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A letter from the Richmond School Board sent Aug. 31 expresses that board's concerns about the charter school's ability to meet that challenge.

Kim Gray, vice chairwoman of the school board, says she supports the efforts at Patrick Henry but worries about the fundraising. It's unclear whether that federal money for programs could be used for ADA-related capital improvements, she says.

“What I'm not in support of is if we were forced to take money out of the ADA funds we get from the city to bring that building into compliance,” Gray says.

David Hopper, a lawyer who represents parents of disabled schoolchildren in a 2006 lawsuit settlement that requires Richmond schools to meet basic ADA requirements, is also concerned. “If they bring a building on line, then they've got to comply [with ADA],” Hopper says.

Not a problem, Butterworth says: “We're fully confident that we can meet the ADA requirements.” She says school organizers are well into the process of securing architectural designs for a wheelchair lift that will be installed before the first day of school. Plans for an elevator would follow in the second year, she says, to replace the lift.

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