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OPINION: Magnolias and Mendacity 

School Board and city officials need to seize the moment and embrace solutions rather than age-old slugfests when building new schools.

click to enlarge Richmond Public School Superintendent Jason Kamras with Mayor Levar Stoney before addressing a crowd at Mary Munford Elementary School in 2018.

Scott Elmquist/File

Richmond Public School Superintendent Jason Kamras with Mayor Levar Stoney before addressing a crowd at Mary Munford Elementary School in 2018.

Spring has arrived and the air is filled with pollen, the smells of magnolias and the sounds of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond Public School Superintendent Jason Kamras caterwauling in the wind.  

They’re upset that a majority of School Board members voted April 12 to “have schools build schools.”  During a recent news conference at George Wythe High School, Stoney promoted the notion that School Board members who voted in favor of the resolution were somehow denying students a new George Wythe High School. As proof, he pointed out that last October, right before the election, he announced he wanted to build a new Wythe High School.  

Fast forward nearly seven months past his October pre-election announcement, he now says he was planning to put out a request for proposals next week.  

Now, because a majority of the School Board voted to have the school system oversee building schools, Stoney says the construction of a new George Wythe High School won’t be happening anytime soon. His tone of voice at the news conference alternated between righteous anger and the sound of a disappointed daddy explaining to recalcitrant, misbehaving children why they can’t have nice things.

Rather than acknowledge that the School Board members were simply attempting to fulfill their constitutionally vested duties and obey the Virginia law, Stoney vigorously defended his administration’s efforts and portrayed the school board’s action as “petty politics.”

In response, those five members – Mariah White of the 2nd District, Kenya Gibson of the 3rd District, Jonathan Young of the 4th District, vice-chair Stephanie Rizzi of the 5th District and Shonda Muhammad-Harris of the 6th District – issued a joint news release affirming they were “fully committed to moving forward with George Wythe High School. We look forward to re-imagining the legacy of George Wythe in a facility that makes past and future generations of Bulldogs proud.” 

They also indicated their dissatisfaction with the joint construction team was the result of its delivering three new schools that “were the most expensive schools in the state, costing millions of dollars more than comparable schools.” 

Their action in bringing forward the resolution came after months of excuses, delays and no clear answers concerning why the construction of three new elementary schools took longer and ended up costing at least $16.3 million more than state averages for the construction of similarly sized schools, according to data available on the Virginia Department of Education website.

The increased costs for building the schools were no doubt exacerbated by the fact that the city administration and its construction management firm, AEcom, skirted the requirements of the Virginia Public Procurement Act and awarded three multimillion-dollar contracts with no competitive bidding. That’s right. No competitive bidding. More’s the pity that there were no objections recorded from school officials concerning what this deviation from standard practice might end up costing the district.   

Having never been a school superintendent before he was hired in Richmond, Kamras has no experience building schools or even an understanding of what is necessary to do so.  His lament that the schools don’t have the “bandwidth” to oversee school construction and that it would cost at least $3 million annually and require that he hire 15 people, reveals his lack of experience dealing with the construction process, say experts with the state and in surrounding localities who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

Kamras is understandably frustrated by the prospect of more challenges being added to his already full plate of bringing Richmond city schools into compliance with the academic requirements of the Virginia Department of Education. And he has yet to make good on the promises he made in the first year of his administration to undertake a district-wide blitz to repair all the bathrooms in city schools. 

Moreover, Stoney and Kamras would be well-advised to remember the litany of problems surrounding the construction of Huguenot High School, a project initiated by former Mayor Dwight Jones and inherited by Stoney and Kamras.

The School Board’s vice chairman, Jonathan Young, who had to deal with the myriad problems created by the sinking gymnasium floor and leaking roof at Huguenot, as well as the escalating costs caused by the construction failures, has long been on the record wanting the schools to oversee the construction process.  

“No one should have been surprised by this resolution,” Young notes. “Kenya Gibson and I have been clear with our colleagues that we understood our legal duties as well as the practical realities of having the people charged with running the schools be in charge of building the schools.”

“We are talking about upholding our oaths of office and performing our constitutionally vested duties and obeying the Virginia Code,” Gibson says. Or as Muhammad-Harris noted, “It is amazing that anyone is upset that we are basically taking back from the city something that wasn’t theirs to begin with. The law is clear: It is the job of the School Board to be in charge of building schools.” 

Adds Young:  “Everyone should be cooperating here. If the mayor is truly dedicated to seeing Wythe be built, he ought to be saying, ‘Here’s the RFP we have ready. … Use it, tweak it, do whatever is necessary’ instead of essentially saying he intends to take his marbles and go home. We are simply obeying the law.”

School Board and city leaders should use this moment to seize not only this day, but the future and design not just this school, but all schools to be transformative places of learning. Most of all, our children need to see city leaders who seek solutions rather than perpetuate slugfests based on old-school turf wars.  

Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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