Caving In

Dead rodents, moldy curtains and black ooze. Inside Richmond's worst public school buildings.

The ceilings at Thompson Middle School started oozing in the fall. Watery, foul-smelling drops of diluted tar fell into classrooms and hallways. The long, wet winter only made things worse. The ooze continues to creep.

The staff does what it’s always done when the building starts showing its age: It copes. Custodians work late. Teachers rearrange desks. Buckets are put into place.

School Board Vice Chairman Kristen Larson, who represents the South Side school as part of her 4th District, makes a return visit to see the problem. The smell of the tar water mixed with lemon-scented Lysol assaults the nostrils and doesn’t let go.

Leading her on a tour, a school administrator tells Larson it’s been getting worse. More leaks, more of the 504 students complaining of headaches. One teacher has called in sick. A student circulated a petition protesting the conditions. (She didn’t have a hall pass and was reprimanded.) The problem stems from a hasty patch job on the roof last spring. It was a stopgap measure whose time came and went.

While the administrator patiently but firmly asks Larson when a new roof will be installed, a leak sprouts in the hallway. A drop of black water barely misses Larson’s head. She looks up, then down at her foot, watching beads of black water fall from ceiling to floor.

Larson tells the administrator that Fairfield Court Elementary is first in line for a new roof. It’s experiencing the same ooze problem, but there a ceiling tile fell on a student. A new roof will cost $90,000 — nearly one-fifth of the district’s capital maintenance budget for the year.

Larson walks out of Thompson’s front entrance and looks to her left. There looms the sprawling, beautiful mound of brick and glass that will be the new Huguenot High School, touted by Mayor Dwight Jones as part of his Schools Capital Improvement Program. She takes in the sparkling new future for some students, wincing at the bucket-laden, 50-year-old building a few hundred yards away.

“That,” she says, looking toward the emerging building, “creates an environment of the haves and the have-nots.”

Later she’s more frank about the conditions she saw at Thompson: “I wanted to leave the room and throw up.”

Tar water is the tip of the iceberg of fixes needed for Richmond’s public schools, most of which are more than 60 years old. A 2013 report compiling capital needs during the next five years estimates that $26 million is needed this year alone.

The report chronicles a to-do list at 48 facilities — every building that was operating at the time — ranging from a few hundred dollars for repainting parking spots to nearly $1 million for window and brick replacement at Bellevue Elementary.

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden, who was sworn into office Jan. 13, says the buildings are the worst he’s seen in a career that includes Washington’s notorious public schools.

Sitting together over coffee recently, Larson and 2nd District Representative Kim Gray pore over the numbers. There’s the report from 2002 calling for the closures and renovations and new buildings. A 2007 report calling for the same. They outline critical building issues that remain unaddressed.

Richmond’s schools depend upon City Hall for funding, and the mayor’s focus has been on new schools, leaving old ones largely unrepaired. The mayor delivered his 2014 State of the City address at the new Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in January, the month it opened, and he’s pushing for a new school in South Highland Park. Larson and Gray say that none of this planning has involved the School Board.

In his speech, the mayor announced his intention to increase capital funding for schools to $18 million over the next five years. The School Board members in attendance appeared unmoved.

“He said, ‘You can clap for that,'” Larson recalls. “That was awkward.”

Last year, the School Board asked the mayor for $1.5 million to address building needs. It ended up with $685,000. This year, the board asked for $18 million for capital maintenance spread over three years. The mayor’s budget calls for $18 million over five years.

The first public hearing on the mayor’s 2014 budget proposal is April 14. As the City Council begins considering it, Bedden and the School Board are publicly pressing the mayor and City Council to rethink how they’ve been funding — or not funding — schools.

Last week Bedden challenged City Hall priorities, arguing that while the city’s budget grew this year, the schools received only $1 million more than the year before. During the same period, he says the allocation for public safety grew by $11 million.

Larson and Gray are leading a buildings’ task force scheduled to convene this month, with a report due in September. To illustrate the scope of the issue, the pair agreed to take a Style Weekly reporter and photographer on tours of four schools: Thompson, in Larson’s district, Carver Elementary, in Gray’s district, Armstrong High School and Greene Elementary.

Gray stands at the bottom of the staircase leading to the second floor of an unused annex of Carver Elementary. Technically speaking, Carver actually is the annex. This decaying hulk is what remains of the first purpose-built school for black children in the South, Gray says.

One of the custodians shows what’s become of a once beautiful building. While no classes are taught in the annex, it’s connected to the main building, separated from the 525 children who attend Carver by only a layer of drywall or plywood. It’s like a rotting limb on a body. Children haven’t been in this part of the school since 1999, according to the Christmas cards they left behind.

“They’re smiling and skipping along the halls,” Gray says, wiping away tears, of the students a few hundred feet away. “They don’t know they’re being cheated.”

She takes a breath, and heads up. Chips that could be paint or fiberglass cover the floor. Gray, finding her footing, starts down another dark stairwell. “All this crunching,” she says. “I feel like if you turned the lights on, I’d be horrified.”

There’s an especially sharp crunch underfoot. The custodian, who won’t give his name, gestures at the floor at the bottom of the stairs. “Don’t want her to see that,” he says, sweeping a dead mouse away.

The mouse is more skeletal than furry. It’s been down here a while. A few hundred feet away is the plywood wall that separates this rodent catacomb from Carver Elementary’s basement.

The basement isn’t just a space for mousetraps. There’s the boiler room, with machinery still caked in mud and rust from a malfunction that briefly forced students into the Arthur Ashe Center last winter. There’s the bathroom that can’t be used because of the steep grade of the building.

Next to that are three classrooms that everyone in the Richmond Public Schools and City Hall administration should be required to see: art, music and the gym.

Each is worse than the last. In the art room, fabric replaces missing cabinet doors. There’s little sunlight allowed through the gauzy haze of what passes for windows. The music room has a concave floor, no direct sunlight and two small space heaters. Then there’s the gym, which is a set of hula hoops and a concrete floor, painted black.

“This is it,” Gray says.

Upstairs, the stench from the moldy curtains permeates the room, even from 100 feet away. The custodian shows two boys’ bathrooms lighted by only one light fixture each. They’re so dim, he says, that the bathrooms can’t be used after dark. The light fixtures are so old, the custodian says, he can’t order any replacement bulbs.

“When they go,” he says, “it’s over.”

“They need a new building,” Gray says, adding: “They’re a mile from the Redskins camp.”

The NFL sports complex, a triumph for the Jones administration, is a sore spot for Gray. The football team’s training facility cost millions of dollars, and the city leased an unused public school building to sweeten the deal for the team’s sponsor, Bon Secours. The $100,000 yearly rent, earmarked for schools, went uncollected until queries by former School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf reminded someone in City Hall to send the necessary invoices to Bon Secours.

Gray visits Armstrong High School next. Never mind dead rodents — Armstrong fights live ones. It got so bad, she says, that snakes became a problem as well. Led around by an administrator who also doesn’t want to be named, Gray looks at the locker rooms. The girls’ is dominated by peeling paint, rust and a white residue that looks like it should wash off, but doesn’t. The boys’ is faring a little better since the last time she saw it. Shower floors are covered in cigarette butts, but the hardware is newer.

“I still don’t think I’d want to take a shower here,” Gray says.

“The kids don’t,” the administrator responds.

None of the school staff members accompanying Gray, Larson and Style on the school tours are willing to be identified by name. They cited fear of retribution, an indictment of the district and political culture at City Hall.

“The political environment in this city is a blood sport,” says School Board member Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, who represents the South Side’s 9th District. “I can stand on truth, but then I have to consider how this is going to come back to bite me.”

Although the system has a new School Board and a new superintendent, Gray says, much remains unchanged. School officials, whom she declines to identify by name, might punish those who speak out of turn, she says: “We can’t fire some of these people quickly enough.”

School Board Chairman Don Coleman says he has a good relationship with Fairfield Court’s principal, which is why he was surprised he never got a call about its leaking roof. “Somewhere he was thinking, ‘Oh, I better not say something.'”

“Where is this still coming from?” Coleman asks, answering: “People don’t believe change is happening.”

That so many of the district’s 23,775 students are learning — and its teachers trying to teach — in such deplorable conditions raises more than few questions, not the least of which is: How did things get so bad? And whose fault in this?

The simple answer is not enough money and too much politics. The more complicated truth is that part of the problem is structural. An elected School Board is beholden to City Hall for funding. City Hall, in turn, is hamstrung by the General Assembly.

“There’s a much larger and darker background to this,” says the Rev. Ben Campbell, author of “Richmond’s Unhealed History” and an Armstrong High School volunteer. “We’re dealing with a lot of artifacts of a negative situation.”

When integration threatened once all-white schools in the ’60s, Campbell says, the General Assembly removed the city’s ability to annex surrounding communities, stifling its tax base and piling on a mountain of debt. Henrico and Chesterfield counties were left to enjoy the region’s economic growth alone.

“Everybody has come face-to-face with this reality,” Campbell says. “Daily, we’re having to choose between very important repair projects and very important renovations, or new school construction for which they don’t have sufficient money.”

Jones has made his intentions clear: New schools are the way forward. Byron Marshall, his chief administrative officer, says Jones understands the balance needed between maintaining old schools and building new ones. He notes that the mayor’s budget falls only a few million dollars short of the board’s $18.6 million, three-year capital needs request.

“We’re trying to be reasonable and practical at the same time,” Marshall says.

Gray says the board’s budget request wasn’t enough — partially because Bedden was expected to turn around a proposal with only a few months on the job. Other board members have been more reticent.

Pinkney-Eppes says she supports the building task force, which may be a sign the board is ready to move past its own divisions.

“If we get in a room and put our priorities down,” she says, “we’ll look more like a unified board than we look like right now.”

The hope is that the results of this task force will show unity, and that they won’t end up on a shelf. But none of this changes how much money is available today. Gray says she’s tired of not having answers for parents and fearful administrators who want better for their children now.

“Short of tearing down the ceiling myself,” Gray says, “I don’t know what else to tell them. We have a great sense of responsibility and our hands are tied.”

So all the board can do is ask, she says. This week, Larson says the board will approve a letter requesting a special allocation of $300,000 from the city to pay for new roofs at Thompson and Fairfield.


One more school visit is scheduled for Style. Larson hopes to highlight Greene Elementary on the city’s South Side, where some classes are being held in trailers because of overcrowding in the school. Many students are children of Latino immigrants.

“You have people who are afraid to be visible and be vocal,” Larson says.

Pinkney-Eppes wants to come on the tour as well. Instead, hours before it’s scheduled to begin, she calls to say it isn’t going to happen.

The administrator, she says, was too afraid. S


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