RPS hits snag in construction of new elementary school

New school construction hits snag

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Construction of a new George Mason Elementary School in Church Hill hit a roadblock Tuesday after the city’s Commission of Architectural Review deferred approving the demolition of the historic school building on the same property.

Now, Richmond Public Schools must research ways to possibly preserve the near century-old building, instead of tearing it down.

George Mason Elementary was one of Richmond’s first schools built for African American students, dating back to the late 1800s. The oldest remaining section of the school is 97 years old. The cornerstone on the building reads 1922.

Construction of a new George Mason Elementary is well underway right next to the existing school on the same plot of land. As part of the development, RPS aimed to tear down the historic building to put in athletic fields, tennis courts, a playground and parking lots.

However, the Commission of Architectural Review is tasked with preserving the city’s historic areas. The body delayed approving the demolition, finding that RPS had not vetted other options to demolishing the historic building. Those options include renovating or re-purposing the building, or even selling or relocating it.

“This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen at this stage. We’re already building the school,” said Richmond School Board member Kenya Gibson.

Gibson says she's baffled over why the issue of the old school wasn't discussed by project administrators before the new construction started.

"We’re going to demolish this historic black school without any conversation at all?” questioned Gibson. “The process (to build the new school) has absolutely been rushed.”

Superintendent Jason Kamras was not happy about the commission’s decision to hold off on approving demotion.

A statement from Kamras reads:

I am disappointed that the commission deferred the approval of demolishing the existing George Mason Elementary School. While we appreciate the importance of preserving historical sites in Richmond, we believe our children should come first. Every RPS student deserves beautiful outdoor spaces – including athletic fields and courts, as well as modern playground equipment. In fact, such spaces are required by the Virginia Department of Education. Without the demolition of the existing school building, Mason students will be denied access to these essential elements of their educational experience.”

“There’s no reason why we should be in a situation where we’re risking the opportunity to have the tennis courts or the playground because someone just didn’t do their job,” said Gibson.

RPS officials in support of demolishing the old building say it’s laden with asbestos and would need expensive upgrades, including plumbing and electrical work.

Ultimately, if the old school building is deemed unable to be preserved, it could still be torn down. But a lot more research into other options must be done first.

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