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Update: Wythe construction remains in limbo

School building front
George Wythe High School, on Richmond's Southside, was originally built in 1960. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Update: This story was updated Tuesday, March 29 at 2:49 p.m. to reflect a Monday City Council vote not to approve the budget transfer.

Richmond’s School Board and City Council met last week in yet another attempt to get on the same page and move forward with the design and construction of a new George Wythe High School on the city’s Southside. A compromise was floated but not agreed to.

School Board member Jonathan Young told VPM News that an expert review panel – including city staff members – has already agreed internally on a design firm.

But he says the board can’t award the contract until City Council approves a $7.3 million budget transfer. The budget transfer has been on council’s agenda since last November but hasn’t been approved yet. The School Board responded to a long list of questions from council members in January, but additional questions were posed last week. The transfer failed to clear City Council on Monday, falling two votes short of the six needed to approve budget transfers.

Some City Council members are hesitant to sign on to support a school with capacity for only 1,600 students because they worry it will become overcrowded. That echoes concerns from some community members who’ve urged council not to support the budget transfer unless a larger school is planned. And Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is still pressuring the School Board to change the type of construction contract method they’ve selected, insisting it will speed up construction of the new high school building.

Because the school-construction standstill has been going on for about a year, we decided it was time to step back, unpack the numbers and speak with experts to address two key policy issues at the heart of this debate: how large of a school should be built, and what type of construction contract should be utilized.

How large of a school should be built?

Matthew Cropper is president of Cropper GIS, a company Richmond Public Schools hired to conduct a study of demographic and enrollment trends in 2019. That study recorded 1,278 students enrolled at George Wythe for 2018-19 on Oct. 31, 2018. “And that was actual historical enrollment [from RPS],” Cropper said.

But Wythe’s fall enrollment from a month earlier on Sept. 30, 2018 was only 1,076. RPS told VPM that “enrollment fluctuates throughout the year.” VPM has requested monthly point-in-time enrollment data for the school over the last five years to get a better sense of that fluctuation.

Last September’s headcount at Wythe was 1,298, while Cropper predicted student enrollment would be 1,541 this year. Several School Board members who support building a 1,600-student school point out the discrepancy between these figures as part of their rationale for building a smaller school.

They hope the move will also save money to free up funds necessary to more quickly tackle the renovation or reconstruction of Woodville Elementary; a letter sent by board members to council members states they expect to save $16.4 million by building a smaller school.

Meanwhile, Stoney, multiple City Council members, a group called the Wythe Can’t Wait Coalition and members of the Wythe community are advocating for a 2,000-student school. They point to Cropper’s estimates that project over 1,700 students enrolled at Wythe in the 2024-25 school year.

They want to ensure the school won’t be overcrowded if students who’ve dropped out return to school; the school has a dropout rate of over 30%. They also point out that 2020 census data shows that the population of Richmond as a whole increased more than Cropper predicted. That census also undercounted Black, Hispanic and Native American residents, who make up a large percentage of George Wythe’s student body.

University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center demographer Hamilton Lombard says the more important Census-related number to look at is the population under 18, which Cropper actually over-estimated. The 2020 Census counted 38,000 residents under age 18, while Cropper expected 42,000.

He says that while that illustrates how Richmond has changed since the Cropper study was produced, it neither “necessarily confirms or undermines his projection.”

The pandemic was another huge complicating factor.

“Of course, nobody predicted the pandemic. His [Cropper’s] projections were done before the pandemic,” Lombard said. “The pandemic has probably been the most significant demographic trend Virginia has seen possibly since World War II. It seems to have really reordered where we're seeing growth.”

Because of an influx of families moving out of cities during the pandemic, Lombard says the best data to capture Richmond’s current enrollment trends will be the student count for this coming fall, 2022.

Last fall’s data showed an increase in students enrolled at George Wythe, but Lombard said that’s not enough to project future enrollment.

“You really probably need another year or two of school enrollment trends to get an idea of what the new normal is,” Lombard said. “I don't think anybody knows what it is right now.”

Still, Lombard recommended having the projections updated to factor in 2020 census numbers and pandemic trends; his department does this for other Virginia school districts.

“If you're talking about spending $200 million, I think you update these [numbers] on an annual basis and you keep a close eye on it,” Lombard said.

Cropper told VPM News he hasn’t been contacted by RPS about possibly updating figures from his 2019 study. The district’s fall 2019 rezoning work also wasn’t included in Cropper’s study, because his report came out before the rezoning process.

Another important point, Lombard says, is that due to current birth trends, “statewide, we're expecting high school enrollment to start declining by 2026-27. And there's no foreseeable end to that decline.”

University of Richmond professor of leadership studies Thad Williamson, part of the Wythe Can’t Wait Coalition advocating for a 2,000-student school, says that even if there ends up being extra capacity at the school, the district could rezone.

“2,000 seats is providing 2,000 more opportunities for students to be in a state-of-the-art building. That for us is the fundamental rationale,” Williamson said. “And currently, there's a part of Southside which is actually zoned for Armstrong High School. And that really doesn't make a lot of sense to continue busing kids from the Southside to go to Armstrong when there's a much newer facility on the same side of the river that they could access. And so it would make all the sense in the world to expand the zone.”

Damian Pitt, a professor of urban and regional studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently submitted a letter to City Council arguing that Cropper’s enrollment projections are actually too low. He said Cropper’s analysis did not take into account the city’s own long-term plans for how future population growth will be distributed across the city through the Richmond 300 Master plan.

“The fact that the city is taking steps to plan for enhanced transit service in parts of Southside – major corridors in the Southside – indicates that there is a vision and desire on the part of the city for there to be population growth and development in those areas,” Pitt said.

Neither Pitt nor Cropper could point to specific development projects that were included or left out of Cropper’s analysis. But Cropper said it’s standard to only factor in development projects that are already underway or certain to happen.

“When we do our forecasting work, we have to be careful not to overestimate for planned development that's too far out because plans very often change," Cropper said. “We have experienced that if we do account for everything that people say is going to happen…our forecast runs too high. And so we take a more conservative approach as it relates to housing, factoring in only things that are more certain and not things that are part of a long-range plan per se.”

Which construction contract type should be utilized?

City administrators, rather than RPS staff, have historically handled school construction contracts for the city. They’ve used a construction model known as Construction Manager at Risk. This model typically involves the awarding of two separate contracts: one with a design firm and one with a construction management company. As a 2014 JLARC study notes, management company contracts under this model are not awarded based on the lowest cost.

After the cost to build the city’s last three schools came in around $30 million over budget, a third-party analysis of construction costs was floated by the superintendent and agreed to by the School Board but never happened.

For those schools, construction management company AECOM and design firm RRMM were each paid over $5 million. In 2015, before Stoney’s election, there were calls for more oversight of AECOM contracts for school construction and other city projects.

The city has come under fire in recent years for the way it selects companies without competitively sealed bids; a 2020 city audit states that “the City’s Program Management Services Contract was not awarded solely based on the lowest cost to the City. Rather, it was based on the chosen vendor’s familiarity and knowledge of the City processes, procedures and politics. The vendor selected maintains office space and staff in the Capital Project Division area in City Hall.”

As a result, School Board members began discussing ways to bring school construction in-house in an attempt to save money. Last April, the board voted to take over school construction from the city and decided to proceed with a different school construction model called design-bid-build. A construction management company like AECOM isn’t utilized in this model, which is where the school board hopes to see savings by instead having a full-time staff member oversee the design and construction.

Stoney has also faced criticism because AECOM donated $5,000 each to his campaign and PAC in 2020. Other companies that’ve received contracts with the city for school construction have also donated to Stoney during his mayorship. He maintains that those donations were fully legal and do not influence decisions about who is selected to fulfill city contracts.

“My office has nothing to do with procurement,” Stoney said, though days before he’d sent a joint letter to city council and the school board urging them to switch back to the CMAR contract model.

“In the city of Richmond, we have a whole procurement office that handles that. It's against the law for the chief executive or any politician to be involved in procurement. No one wants to be involved in procurement here. And so at the end of the day, if the contributions were received legally, under the state law, we're gonna follow the state law.”

In a recent Clemson University study of 137 schools, design-bid-build contracts were found to be more cost-effective than Construction Manager at Risk contracts.

According to the study, “DBB was developed primarily to reduce the risk of corruption and cost overruns. It can be used to produce quality results on both public and private projects when used under the proper conditions. Advantages associated with the DBB method include an easily understood and well-documented process, the perception of fairness, owner control of the process, reduced chances for corruption, reliable schedule predictability, and initial cost certainty.”

The study found the CMAR method did have some advantages, however, including increased quality and the ability to more easily incorporate changes. That said, the study noted that “the DBB method has the ability to provide public school projects with satisfactory quality levels, and with the added benefit of significantly lower costs.”

Ashley Johnson, faculty member in Virginia Tech’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction, says she thinks competitive bidding and negotiations contribute more to cost savings than design method differences. Johnson says competitive bidding can be incorporated into either contract model and that different scenarios lend themselves to the different contract types.

“If you want to make changes along the way, and you want to have a bit more of that hand and involvement in the design process as it evolves, then that [Construction Manager at Risk] is going to be more beneficial,” Johnson said. “If the owner knows already exactly what they want and they can get the design out the door very quickly…usually then you can execute that design-bid-build method well.”

Another finding of the 2020 city audit: there were over $124 million worth of change orders, which the report recommends cutting down on. “School systems may also see a reduction in other costs, such as change orders and contingency costs by using prototype school designs,” the report notes.

Johnson says some change orders are inevitable, especially involving old buildings for which there isn’t much historical documentation.

“I know Virginia Tech runs into that when we design and build projects here on campus because it's been around for a very long time and occasionally they discover some underground utility or something they didn't quite fully know exactly where it was located,” Johnson said.

She adds that it's important to know details like the number of students in the school when going into the design process. That’s especially true under the DBB model because typically the design has to be fully fleshed out before the construction phase can begin – unlike in the CMAR model.

She says when school districts “have a bit of a time crunch,” CMAR can make more sense because it’s easier to get construction-related planning work – like site work and underground work – done while the design is being worked out.

Johnson says that while it depends on the size of the school, DBB generally adds a few months to construction time when compared to CMAR.

Stoney argues it will add nearly two years.

“Sticking with our current construction method, which is design-bid-build, the school will almost certainly not be completed before March of 2027,” Stoney said at a press conference this week.

“If the city government and public schools were to work together and collaborate on George Wythe utilizing the city's approved construction method, the school could be complete as soon as July or August of 2025.”

To back that claim, Lincoln Saunders, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, pointed to a scheduling chart put together by city construction officials that estimates design wouldn’t be finalized until fall 2023 under the DBB method.

School Board member Jonathan Young, however, called the city’s timeline “hilarious” and said the only reason design could take another year and a half is if City Council fails to transfer the funds necessary to award a design contract.

Noel Carpenter, who has studied the contract differences in other states and runs the mechanical contracting company Industrial HVAC, notes that “the research shows with certainty that the CM at-Risk project delivery method does not produce public schools at a lower cost than the design-bid-build method. Quite the contrary is true, and we have copious amounts of evidence to show it.”

But, he says time and cost estimates can always change.

“Anything could happen,” he said.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.