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Conflict Over George Wythe Continues Despite Calls for Collaboration

school hallway
A hallway in the George Wythe High School. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

During the first Education Compact meeting since the Richmond school board voted to take over school construction, Mayor Levar Stoney and members of the board doubled down on their conflicting views over how the construction of George Wythe High School should proceed.

The city kicked off the discussion over GWHS with a presentation detailing its proposed timeline. It involves issuing a request for design by no later than June 1 and having the school ready to open in August 2024.

Stoney questioned the school board’s ability to outperform the city’s construction timeline and  board members’ commitment to building the new school. Fifth District board member Stephanie Rizzi said board members were not given the opportunity to present at the meeting.

“Everything presented here tonight has been one-sided, as has this discussion been,” Rizzi said.

Third District board member Kenya Gibson reiterated her concerns that Stoney overspent on construction of the city’s three newest schools. Stoney and Superintendent Jason Kamras disagreed, saying the district’s original estimates were merely “placeholders” based on inaccurate data.

Gibson rejected the claim that the district’s estimates were off. “It’s simply an oversimplification and it’s not true,” she said. 

Kamras said George Wythe would be delayed if the school system oversees construction. “To be frank, we’re still several months away from being able to launch an RFP. We’re just at the beginning stage of hiring the procurement personnel to be able to do so,” he said.

When asked whether the city could transfer its already-finished RFP for design to the school board to expedite the reconstruction of GWHS, Stoney’s office signaled an unwillingness to do so because the school board currently lacks procurement staff.

During a particularly tense exchange between the board and the mayor, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch called on city officials to listen to each other and collaborate to meet their common goal of rebuilding GWHS.

“How do we work together and move forward and really listen to each others’ concerns?” Lynch asked. “Isn’t that what this education compact is all about?”

Stoney said his priority was not to find a compromise, but to stick to the city’s plans for rebuilding GWHS by August 2024. “That’s the bottom line. Any date after that, any date in 2025, in 2026, in 2027 is unacceptable,” the mayor said.

City Council Vice Chair Ellen Robertson expressed support for the school board’s decision to take over construction, and pledged to “respect and honor that decision.” She asked the board to continue collaborating with the city, as board members will continue to depend on the city for funding.

“At the end of the day, every tax dollar that is levied, only the City of Richmond has the authority to levy those dollars. So at the end of the day, Richmond City is a partner,” Robertson said.

The path for a new George Wythe remains uncertain. Both sides continue to accuse the other of spreading lies and misinformation. The city continues to accuse the school board of delaying GWHS, and the school board is still proceeding with hiring its own procurement staff and taking over construction.

On Monday, the Richmond School Board voted to create a community advisory board to oversee the reconstruction of George Wythe High School, made up of GWHS staff, students and stakeholders. The superintendent also presented job descriptions for three procurement staff positions.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the mayor’s office says the expected cost of the new George Wythe is around $140,000. The city says it has a total of $200,000 set aside for school construction projects. 

“2024 should be the North Star for our kids in getting them to a new George Wythe,” Stoney said as he wrapped up the education compact meeting. “I appreciate your participation and I’m looking forward to your collaboration and compromise moving forward.”

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