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Attorney for Richmond Public Schools called teachers’ union resolutions ‘inflammatory’

School Board member Gibson works on her computer
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
School board member Kenya Gibson listens during a Richmond Public School Board meeting on Monday, July 10, 2023 at Huguenot High School in Richmond, Virginia.

He recommended redrafting the proposals 'to address the board's concerns in a way that does not concede liability unnecessarily ... .'

Two resolutions that focused on school facility concerns were up for discussion on Monday.

Neither of the resolutions were made public in advance of the meeting — following advice from the district’s legal counsel not to approve them.

VPM News obtained a copy of an email sent from an attorney with Haney Phinyowattanachip PLLC, who represents the district, to school board chair Stephanie Rizzi last Friday.

Pakapon Phinyowattanachip emailed Rizzi that the draft resolutions were “highly inflammatory.” Phinyowattanachip wrote the drafts contained factual assertions that “unless each member who is voting on the resolution knows (through the member’s own investigation/diligence) that each factual assertion is entirely accurate, how can a vote be taken to accept them?”

The Richmond Education Association resolution about air quality stated that “on September 8, staff and students were dismissed early due to high temperatures in the school building,” that “multiple staff were sickened by the excessive heat at John Marshall in September 2023” and that “controlled scientific studies have demonstrated that excessively high and low temperatures negatively impact student behavior and academic outcomes.”

The email from Phinyowattanachip to Rizzi also said the resolutions “have the school board admitting liability,” pointing to language in the resolution about “several RPS staff members and students at several RPS facilities returned to the classroom for the 2023-2024 school year to unhealthy indoor air quality conditions and to find visible mold growing on walls, furniture and materials.”

It ended with the recommendation that if the board wanted to move forward with the resolutions, that they redraft them “to address the board’s concerns in a way that does not concede liability unnecessarily, that provides a path forward that is realistic, financially and otherwise, and that provides a timeframe that can be reasonably implemented.”

Because of this email, Rizzi contacted other school board members to ask whether they thought the resolutions should be made public ahead of Monday’s meeting. 

“The majority of the Board indicated that it would be best not to post the resolutions based on legal counsel's assessment,” Rizzi told VPM News in a statement. “It is unfortunate that there are individuals who do not trust the very people who work tirelessly day in and day out to keep our aging facilities safe. Public school facilities in general have long suffered from a lack of funding, and our facilities team struggles with increasing building issues and a budget not nearly enough to cover maintenance.”

REA Vice President Anne Forrester was disappointed that the board refused to post the resolutions for consideration Monday, adding that any member could’ve rewritten or simplified it prior to posting. 

“We have heard from multiple workers that RPS does not seem to have, or has not adequately communicated, clear operating procedures or policies for safe operations in our buildings,” Forrester told VPM News in a statement.

“These resolutions or their contents can be a starting point in that process. The REA will continue to organize for the safe and healthy school facilities our students and staff deserve.”

Rizzi told VPM News that she is open to having the teacher’s union and RPS attorneys review and edit the documents for a future posting. However, she said “as they are, they are not in a condition that I believe reflects well on the district.”

Despite the unwillingness of the board to publish the initial REA resolutions, school board member Kenya Gibson brought up the fire safety resolution for a vote Monday, which failed.

“The optics don’t look good,” Gibson said during Monday’s school board meeting. “I want to give everybody on this board the opportunity to be on the right side of history. We have had two buildings burn down.”

Last year, William Fox Elementary in Carytown caught fire, as well as a school bus garage in the district.

Earlier this year, VPM News published an investigation into years’ worth of fire inspection records of all Richmond schools and found that many schools were cited the same fire safety violations year after year. There was also a pattern of missing fire alarm testing paperwork at numerous schools.

REA’s fire safety resolution, if passed, would’ve required the school board to adopt policy about parental notification of fire code violations and all fire safety incidents at their child’s school within 48 hours of their discovery — and specify which future fire violations are serious enough to warrant the temporary relocation of students and staff.

Since the fire safety resolution failed Monday, Gibson told VPM News she decided not to bring up the other resolution for a vote. It would’ve required the district to identify and remediate excessive temperatures, mold and humidity no later than December 2023.

Multiple teachers have spoken out about mold concerns during recent school board meetings.

“There appears to be a fierce resistance to any accountability in the school district,” Gibson told VPM News.

Ahead of the Monday meeting, the district posted a draft policy detailing steps for students and staff to report mold — and how the district planned to address these concerns. The administration also plans to recommend which schools should receive preemptive mold testing going forward.

Last month, Richmond’s Electoral Board cited unhealthy air quality conditions at Boushall Middle School and Clark Springs Elementary in an initial decision to move voting sites at these two schools; that decision has since been reversed.

Corrected: November 3, 2023 at 10:54 AM EDT
An earlier version of this article misidentified Fox Elementary School's location.
Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.