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The Kids Are Still Waiting 

A million dollars worth of facilities plans gathers dust while Richmond Public School buildings continue to crumble.

click to enlarge cover48_schools_no_headlines.jpg

A few parents hurry through the rain, bundled against the biting wind outside George Washington Carver Elementary School.

Despite the bitter weather a week before Thanksgiving, you'll break a sweat in the boys' bathroom downstairs, where the heat is blasting.

But across the hall, in the art room, a window stands wide open. Below it sits a chair on which the teacher climbs throughout the day, opening and closing the window to regulate classroom temperature.

That boys' bathroom, by the way, has a wheelchair-accessible stall and sink. But they're of no use. If you're in a wheelchair, as one Carver child is, you can't access the basement anyway — meaning you can't get to art, gym or music rooms.

Upstairs, students file in and out of the cafeteria for lunch, smiles and quizzical looks on their faces, 3-foot-tall bundles of energy shuffling into place in lines straightened out by patient teachers.

A new, optimistic principal watches, offering encouragement. The principal she replaced, along with the assistant principal and four teachers, resigned earlier this year after a state investigation into accusations of cheating on Standards of Learning tests.

But that's another story.

click to enlarge A student is mentored in the basement of Carver Elementary School. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A student is mentored in the basement of Carver Elementary School.

Carver, which is more than 100 years old, is four blocks behind Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center, north of West Broad Street and halfway between Lombardy and Belvidere streets.

It's filled with about 500 students, 96 percent of them black, and about 96 percent eligible for free or reduced lunches, according to reports by the Richmond Public Schools and the Virginia Department of Education.

This main part of the school is newer, built 67 years ago. The most recent addition was built in 1992. One old annex is boarded off with plywood, dangerous for children.

The whole school needs to be torn down and rebuilt, says City Councilwoman Kim Gray, who studied the facilities needs of the district during two terms on the Richmond School Board. She knows this place inside and out.

click to enlarge The fuse box for the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms and the physical education room is in the basement of Carver Elementary. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The fuse box for the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms and the physical education room is in the basement of Carver Elementary.

But will it be torn down?

Will anyone rebuild it?

What exactly are the plans to fix Carver — and when? And how about the rest of the dozens of ailing schools across the city?

Style spent weeks asking those questions. No one offered clear answers.

This is how it works:

• The School Board votes on a budget and presents its request to the mayor.

• The mayor asks City Council for the money, and tries to find more.

• City Council members face their own constituent pressure, asking questions about how the city and the School Board manage their finances and priorities.

• Voters express themselves at the polls and clamor for change, sometimes electing new leaders who bring no institutional memory.

• A new School Board brings in a new superintendent, who in turn brings in a new leadership team.

• Parents who followed the previous journey to a comprehensive schools plan are left wondering when their children's schools will get better.

• Taxpayers are asked to shoulder more costs and accept reduced public services.

• The public is left confused, searching for a clear vision and strong leadership. Debates erupt. Months pass. Meetings go nowhere. People tire of municipal pingpong.

click to enlarge The School Board met at City Hall on Nov. 19, discussing a report on drinking-water quality, student transcripts and how members would get details on the mayor’s $1.4 billion Coliseum plan. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • The School Board met at City Hall on Nov. 19, discussing a report on drinking-water quality, student transcripts and how members would get details on the mayor’s $1.4 billion Coliseum plan.

"What's the plan? How are we going to do it?" City Councilman Michael Jones asks when interviewed about fixing the Richmond Public Schools after council's November meeting. "I think the citizens of Richmond want to see a plan."

Three days later, School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page insists, "We have voted on a comprehensive plan," referring to a board vote in December.

That plan must be funded, she says: "We don't hold the purse strings."

Jones says — it can't simply be, "Here's my plan, fund the plan."

It will take working together — and time, Jones stresses. Economic development projects could help, he says, noting the groundbreaking in his district of a Rosie's off-track betting parlor off Midlothian Turnpike.

And it helps that the city has presented its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report on time, he says — a report that the state requires, but has been submitted late until the last two years, giving officials a hazy idea of how much money is on the books.

click to enlarge School Superintendent Jason Kamras says his vision for school facilities is for every student to enter a beautiful, modern building that screams, “I love you.” - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • School Superintendent Jason Kamras says his vision for school facilities is for every student to enter a beautiful, modern building that screams, “I love you.”

Councilman Parker Agelasto says the meals-tax increase passed this summer, for which he voted, isn't enough to fix the schools, and that leaders disagree on whether to take a piecemeal or comprehensive approach.

Agelasto proposed raising the cigarette tax, which would have generated $5 million a year to increase Richmond's borrowing capacity, he says. But that proposal received relatively lackluster support from the mayor, and was rebuffed by City Council.

So, too, has council signaled its distaste for raising property taxes — something the Richmond school superintendent suggested in a speech earlier this year. It received an icy reception nearly across the board, from taxpayers to the mayor to City Council. It's unclear where the Richmond School Board, to which the superintendent reports, stands.

Since the meals-tax passage, Agelasto says, there's been little movement on a solution to fix school facilities citywide. "Where was the leadership," he asks — "and where was the next step to the conversation?"

Even conversations within the School Board seem unclear.

While Chairwoman Page says the board approved a comprehensive facilities plan to fix all schools, other School Board members have a different take, including Scott Barlow of the 2nd District, which encompasses Carver.

"My impression is that we passed Phase 1 — a five-year phase" of a plan, Barlow says — not one that addresses every school. Part of the issue, he says, "is the reality of trying to get that kind of plan funded."

Estimates on a comprehensive facilities plan vary from $500 million to $800 million.

click to enlarge Mayor Levar Stoney visits a sixth-grade class at Martin Luther King Middle School on Nov. 16. The mayor says he›s open to school consolidation, an opinion at odds with a majority of School Board members. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mayor Levar Stoney visits a sixth-grade class at Martin Luther King Middle School on Nov. 16. The mayor says he›s open to school consolidation, an opinion at odds with a majority of School Board members.

The closest you can come to a clue about Carver's future is located inside two little squares on the spreadsheet of a cost analysis considered by the Richmond School Board last December.

There, $1.93 million is listed for a "Major Renovation" at Carver in 2028. By then, a current first-grader will be eligible for a Virginia driver's license.

When it comes to addressing deficiencies and fixing problems across the district, School Board member Jonathan Young says, "We as a board have been highly irresponsible and entirely negligent."

There's good news for students at three of the district's 44 schools, officials say.

The city announced last week that it would break ground Dec. 19 on schools to replace George Mason Elementary, E.S.H. Greene Elementary and Elkhart-Thompson Middle. The goal is to open them by 2020.

That's a change from the plan put forth by the Richmond School Board in December to build five schools and renovate two. A month after it passed, the mayor launched a campaign to raise the city meals tax, generating revenue on which to land $150 million in bonds for schools.

"Kids Can't Wait," the slogan went.

But most of them will have to.

The $150 million is enough to build only three of the five schools.

For months, elected officials have been at a standstill about where the rest of the funding will emerge. No one is talking about what happens next or how the impasse will be broken between the School Board and City Council.

"There is not a standstill on our end," Richmond Public Schools spokeswoman Kenita Bowers says.

The mayor blames the state, in part, for the city's financial shortcomings with schools. He's stumping with other municipalities Dec. 8 with a March for More to the State Capitol, though legislators won't be in session till January.

So where does Richmond stand, as of Nov. 28, after years of debates, studies, meetings, students marching to protest at City Hall, an overwhelming voter referendum to fix schools now, General Assembly intervention and urgent calls that "Kids Can't Wait"?

At best, there is a $75 million shortfall to pay for a five-year plan that would address around 15 percent of school facilities through 2024.

At worst, there is no plan to fix the Richmond Public Schools.

click to enlarge Councilwomen Kim Gray and Kristen Nye Larson at Carver Elementary School in front of a life-sized cutout of School Superintendent Jason Kamras and Mayor Levar Stoney. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Councilwomen Kim Gray and Kristen Nye Larson at Carver Elementary School in front of a life-sized cutout of School Superintendent Jason Kamras and Mayor Levar Stoney.

The city has been here before.

There was a 2002 facilities plan. A 2007 plan. A mechanical study in 2012. A rezoning study to gauge enrollment patterns for the best placement of schools. And another facilities plan in 2015 called Option 5.

"We have more than a million dollars in plans sitting on shelves," Councilwoman Gray says. "And in the meantime we have kids who are being held back, injured, having to wear coats while indoors."

When Gray was on the School Board, it created and unanimously passed one of those facilities plans in 2015. It included every school in the city, calling for consolidation, renovation and new construction.

It was the result of more than 40 members of a task force working with school staff and holding 18 public hearings during a year and a half. It relied on a geographic-information-system rezoning contractor and used a recent mechanical system study.

"So we had a lot of data," Gray says. "It was extremely data-driven."

It never was implemented.

There were disagreements among the previous mayor, City Council and School Board. A debate about how much money was needed by the Richmond Public Schools — and how the system was managing what it had. Mayor Dwight Jones had spent money on new schools he wanted to build, too.

And there was a ticking clock toward Election Day 2016.

Levar Stoney was elected mayor after a grueling race that started with the number of mayoral candidates in the double digits. Schools became a key issue, the public fed up with inaction and souring on "shiny new projects," as former City Council member and mayoral candidate Jon Baliles put it.

Stoney said he would be the education mayor.

In the City Council races, Gray and School Board member Kristen Larson ran and won. Only one of their colleagues was re-elected to the School Board — Jeff Bourne. But he left in 2017 after winning a special election to the Virginia House of Delegates.

There was a new mayor, new council members and an entirely new Richmond School Board. And soon, there would be another new face.

The newly elected School Board did away with the Richmond school superintendent, Dana Bedden, an ouster that remains shrouded in secrecy.

The new board members also had different ideas about the 2015 facilities plan left by their predecessors. In part, a majority opposed consolidating any more schools.

With Bedden gone, the board asked interim superintendent Tommy Kranz to come up with other options to fix schools — versions called Plan A and Plan B, along with the existing plan, Option 5. Those options are broken into four five-year phases.

At the School Board meeting Dec. 4, Kranz recommended that the board approve Phase 1 — the first five years of Plan A — at a cost of $224.82 million. The plan called for building five schools and renovating two.

Why only five years?

"Phases 2, 3 and 4, honestly, are phases that may or may not ever happen," Kranz told the board, saying a 20-year plan for all the schools would change over time. "If and when" the board got to the other 15 years, he said, it would have to approve those plans.

No member of the public spoke for or against the recommendation. Some board members expressed frustration at the timing. It was Kenya Gibson's first night on the board, having been elected a month earlier to fill Bourne's seat. Liz Doerr had left the meeting early. Barlow noted that he'd received the plan only four days earlier.

Could they have more time?

The board moved to vote. Five members of the board approved the five-year plan. Three members voted against — Young, Barlow and Linda Owen.

The next day, a headline in The Richmond Times-Dispatch read, "Richmond School Board Approves $224.8 Million, Five-Year Facilities Plan Without Public Input."

A news release from the Richmond Public Schools said the board had approved a 20-year plan, but a question-and-answer summary sheet said it had approved only Phase 1 of a plan. That's what the minutes show as well.

Which may explain why, as of last week, board members told different versions of what they understood was approved — and why several City Council members say, nearly a year later, that they've seen no plan to fix the Richmond Public Schools.

Whatever your version of events — whether there is no plan, part of a plan or a full plan — that's not the point, says Jason Kamras, who was sworn in Feb. 1 as superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools.

click to enlarge Tiawana Giles became the principal of Carver Elementary School in the wake of a standardized testing cheating scandal that ended with the resignation of principal Kiwana Yates earlier this year. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Tiawana Giles became the principal of Carver Elementary School in the wake of a standardized testing cheating scandal that ended with the resignation of principal Kiwana Yates earlier this year.

It's the money, he says — and "courage" required from elected officials.

Between $500 million and $800 million are needed to solve all the facilities challenges, Kamras says. When asked to pinpoint a figure, he puts it at $600 million.

"For me," he says, "the real task is: Will our elected officials at all levels make the tough calls to address this once and for all? It is easy to make a speech about the woeful state of our facilities. It is much harder to do the unpopular thing, which is raise revenue to address it."

Other officials say a plan is crucial to the political realities of funding it.

People support schools, Councilwoman Larson says. But they also want the full picture, she says — to understand how and when every ailing school will be addressed, to know that financial management is wise and to receive clear communication about the difficult decisions that must be made.

"It so matters," she says.

Councilwoman Gray says the School Board should clarify a full, comprehensive plan and ask Kamras to lead the way.

"Without a vision, we shall all perish," Gray says, quoting a verse from Proverbs. "He's got to inspire and motivate the masses."

Kamras says his vision for school facilities is for every student to enter a beautiful, modern building that screams, "I love you."

What do those buildings scream now?

"At best, we are indifferent, and at worst, I don't care," Kamras says, calling the condition of Richmond schools facilities a matter of racial injustice.

For now, ailing schools across Richmond are propped up not by elected officials in City Hall but by concerned people in the community.

At Carver, students walk by art from Hamilton Glass, a renowned muralist whose work is seen across Richmond buildings and featured in museums. Near his image of George Washington Carver are messages in bold letters: "Education Is Power" and "Learning Is Key."

Outside, donated benches and a bike rack that were in storage for two years now are in place. A volunteer fixed a railing that had been knocked over for the same length of time, blocking an exit door — a fix paid for by real estate developer Carter Snipes.

In music class, students use instruments donated by the Monument Avenue Preservation Society and the West Grace Street Association.

Downstairs, around the corner from the boiler room, a second-grade boy builds a tower with wooden blocks, spending time with a volunteer from Carver Promise, a 27-year-old nonprofit that pairs students with mentors throughout their schooling.

He looks up, spotting a few visitors walking by.

"Who are you guys?" he asks.

City Councilwomen Gray and Larson stop to say hello.

"How's your visit going so far?" Larson asks him.

The boy gives two thumbs up.

It's 9:22 p.m. when the School Board adjourns Nov. 19 at City Hall — a relatively short meeting with a light agenda. Members pack their things and wish each other a happy Thanksgiving before heading toward the doors.

click to enlarge Carver Elementary School art teacher Stephanie O’Dell used $30 of her own money to purchase a voice amplifier. Music classes next door drown out her voice. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Carver Elementary School art teacher Stephanie O’Dell used $30 of her own money to purchase a voice amplifier. Music classes next door drown out her voice.  

The biggest discussion has surrounded the months-long cleanup ahead for school officials who must fix student transcripts, one by one, after parents raised questions and a subsequent audit by the Virginia Department of Education determined that schools incorrectly attributed course credits that affected GPAs.

But that's another story.

The topic of facilities is broached briefly during the summary of a drinking-water quality report, which led to the district-wide replacement of water fountains using nearly $1 million in additional funding from City Council.

School Board member Linda Owen, a retired educator who campaigned on her support of the Option 5 school facilities plan, says she has little time to talk. She was too busy to speak about the issue last week, she says, but could be available in two weeks.

Perhaps there's time for a quick question. What is your sense of why the board has no full school facilities plan?

"Because, we don't," says Owen, whose district includes five elementary schools. "And we won't know till we get into it."

What would she tell City Council members who are asking for a plan?

"Same."

With that, she gathers her coat and bag and heads for the elevators, calling back from the hallway, "We don't need to plan more than five years out." S

Click here to read our 2014 cover story on the state of Richmond schools
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