The Good and the Forbidden 

A task force takes an up-close tour of the sights and smells of the Richmond Public Schools.

click to enlarge Members of the Richmond Public Schools task force see conditions of buildings firsthand, including at George Mason Elementary, on a tour led by Tommy Kranz.

Scott Elmquist

Members of the Richmond Public Schools task force see conditions of buildings firsthand, including at George Mason Elementary, on a tour led by Tommy Kranz.

Tommy Kranz has overseen Richmond's public school buildings for only six weeks. But for several hours last Thursday, he's in the spotlight, leading a tour of six facilities with equal parts optimism and disgust.

His group consists of a dozen members of a facilities task force, assembled by the School Board to include building experts, school staff and City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson.

Organized by School Board members Kim Gray and Kristen Larson, the task force aims to bring outside eyes into schools in various stages of disrepair.

"So many people in our system have become complacent for one reason or another," Larson says. "What we really need people to understand is it's a new day. We don't want our children in schools that look like this anymore."

Thursday's tour is about showing what that means. Kranz begins with Ginter Park Elementary, whose 99-year-old facility he describes as having A-level maintenance. The school at first glance looks its age, but otherwise seems fine.

But the basement beckons. A mildew-like smell hangs in the air alongside low-hanging pipes. It seems a questionable space for storing books — and almost inconceivable that it holds classroom space as well.

"It's horrid," says Roderyck Bullock, an East End community advocate. "I'm concerned about the kids down there."

The pupils at Ginter Park have it easy compared with the adults at the former Armstrong High School building on West Leigh Street, now the Adult and Continuing Education Center. Original hardwood flooring is obscured by warped tiles. The air-conditioning units whirr at a volume that forces people to speak loudly to the person standing next to them.

Kranz has studied the building carefully. The units are not only noisy, but also secured in windows that desperately need replacing. "The cool air I'm pumping in is going straight back out," he says.

Susan Damron, a retired teacher, says she recalls teaching in these classrooms. "You get used to it," she says. "But when you see it in a new light, you say, 'Oh.'"

Robertson seems shaken by how gloomy nearly every aspect of the building appears, right down to the ad hoc ceiling-fan system that barely cools the grimly lighted cafeteria. "The worst building is for the students with the most challenges," she says.

From Leigh Street, Kranz's school bus takes the group to George Mason Elementary in the East End. Its signature issue is standing water in the boiler room that Kranz says has been allowed to sit. Next to the boiler room's mini-lake are more classrooms.

Kranz offers a counterpoint with the next two stops. Bellevue Elementary, built in 1912, looks as if you might spot Harry Potter wandering the halls. Its classrooms are too small for modern state standards, but the hardwood floors shine. Broad Rock Elementary, opened in 2013, gleams by comparison.

That beauty, however, gives architect Kenny Durrett pause.

"It's amazing to see the wide spectrum of schools in the same city," he says. "It's unfair some students have to go to those schools, and others go here."

That disparity is again on display at Swansboro Elementary, Kranz's final stop of the tour. While much of the building appears to be in reasonable condition, tension rises when someone asks Kranz to see the basement.

"We will not look at the basement of the school at this time," he replies.

Asked to clarify, he repeats himself three times before acknowledging that there's an "air quality" issue. He doesn't elaborate except to say: "I'm surprised we don't have more illnesses in students. There are issues we need to look at before we allow the general public down there."

The gym comes last. Cramped and old, it's awkwardly cleaved by a newer cinder-block wall. The basketball hoops have yet to be reoriented. One task force member, staring at the hoops, says the scene resembles "some sort of prison."

Returning from the tour, Kranz says his focus is to ensure that each building is safe for the new school year, which begins Aug. 28. The task force will present its findings in November.

Robertson says the goal is to put the entire district on a track in which students finding themselves in failing or gleaming buildings isn't the luck of the draw.

"We need to put together a realistic process of what our needs are," she says, "and make them a reality."


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