Community calls for the rebuild of George Wythe High School

Updated: Apr. 19, 2021 at 11:29 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The South Richmond community is calling for the planning, construction and completion of a new George Wythe High School, and says improvements are overdue.

There is controversy surrounding a resolution the school board passed last week. Five members of the board voted in favor of the school system to solely own, and oversee bidding, design and construction of future city schools. The community and other city leaders fear the resolution adoption will lead to a delay in construction.

“Grown folks who are tasked with the responsibility to serve the public need to stop posturing - just build the schools, that’s all we want to do,” said James Minor with the Richmond NAACP. “Our children, the parents and the staff deserve better. We want a new high school in Southside.”

Minor says the NAACP has continued to hear the concerns of families who are worried the school will be rebuilt later and not sooner.

“Words aren’t enough anymore, it’s time for us to act. I don’t want to hear anything else until an action is attached to that. I don’t want to hear George Wythe is being rebuilt unless it is actually being rebuilt while you are saying it,” said Corey Stuckey, a senior at George Wythe. “Last time I checked, George Wythe was on the list to get rebuilt in 2002 - that was before I was born, I am only 17...I knew what a George Wythe was and it is still not done.”

Stuckey spoke at a press conference Monday, urging city leaders to work together in the best interest of current and future students.

“We are pushing for transparency and communication,” Stuckey explained.

In a statement, the school board members who voted for the resolution wrote the following:

The signatories noted below are excited to affirm the 2023 timeline to begin construction of George Wythe High School and believe unequivocally that the Schools Building Schools resolution adopted on April 12, 2021 ensures its realization. George Wythe High School is a priority.

In 2017 the school board included George Wythe in Phase 1 of the facilities plan, and gave approval to begin design development of the school in 2018.

Three schools moved forward with design development and construction through the Joint Construction Team. These projects were the most expensive school projects in the state costing millions of dollars more than comparable schools. While we celebrate the imminent opening of three new buildings, it is imperative that future school construction is subject to both a competitive bidding process and additional accountability and oversight.

We must avoid paying more than necessary to ensure we can have as many students and teachers in new facilities as soon as possible. Also of note, when school systems lead the design of school buildings, students, teachers and communities benefit. If the past year has taught us anything, it taught us that a classroom does not constitute rows of students facing forward to listen to a lecture.

We must take an innovative process to school design. Few initiatives signal a commitment to students, teachers and community as substantially as the construction of new school facilities, particularly in the City of Richmond where school facilities have been ignored for many decades.

After years of waiting, the School Board signatories noted below are fully committed to moving forward with George Wythe High School. We look forward to re-imagining the legacy of George Wythe in a facility that makes past and future generations of Bulldogs proud. Our students and teachers deserve safe state of the art facilities that honor the history of our schools and our district. Our students, teachers, and staff of Richmond Public Schools have been more than patient. It is the time, our time, to demonstrate a recommitment to building a new George Wythe High School.

School board member Kenya Gibson shared a copy of the draft resolution online on April 5.

Mayor Levar Stoney’s office says RPS and the city administration worked together to build three new schools in less than three years and says the cooperation has served the city well.

Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch has requested the school board attend the city’s Education and Human Services committee meeting Thursday at 2 p.m., and she is asking the school board to present a request for a proposal in two weeks for its plans to rebuild George Wythe. Lynch stated in Monday’s press conference, if the RFP is not presented, she will be requesting that Stoney negate the board’s resolution to have the school system oversee construction.

In a presentation to the school board, Superintendent Jason Kamras explained the City of Richmond was prepared to issue a request for approval for the design of a new George Wythe HS next week with a projected completion date of fall 2024.

“I think the big message is I hope we the adults can figure this out on behalf of the kids at George Wythe, it is what they want and deserve, and I think if we all set aside any political agenda and try to figure out what is the quickest and simplest way to get a new George Wythe, it is what our kids and parents want. I remain optimistic,” said Kamras.

Complying with the school board’s resolution, the City of Richmond’s Office of Procurement stopped its work on the Wythe RFP.

Kamras says right now, RPS is not staffed to build schools on its own. It will need to add positions to its procurement, finance, and facilities departments to begin this work, he says under the new resolution he “will be getting to work” to see that is completed.

“Identifying the funds for these roles, writing the position descriptions, securing VDOE approval per our MOU with the state, posting/advertising, vetting/interviewing, and hiring/onboarding will take 6-9 months,” Kamras explained. “Assuming the new team members are in place by the beginning of 2022, and that board takes a design-bid-build approach to construction, we should expect a new Wythe to be completed by the fall of 2027.”

At a school board meeting Monday night, the board voted to create several new positions and to begin recruiting for staff that will assist in getting new schools built. However, the board did not approve the superintendent’s recommendation to allow the city to begin the process for Wythe since the city was already preparing to do so when the board voted to strip its power.

“While I’m sitting on this board, it’s about the children, the education, my children’s education. We know we need to get these schools built. We need to get our children back into school so hopefully, I hope we get on board. We can vote for this. It’s no problem. I’m not sure why we’re having this over and over communication about this about who is going to build schools,” board member Mariah White said.

It came after an hours-long discussion, which included back and forth deliberations.

“I don’t want to be the laughing stock of Richmond. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to work together as a governing body, and not take things personally, and not be in tears and not be up until midnight,” board member Liz Doerr added.

When the city was handling the process, the new Wythe High was slated to open in 2024. Kamras admitted he’s not sure that the timeline would remain in place since RPS must now start from scratch.

“I will do everything humanly possible to make things go as fast as possible because I don’t want any child, as I know none of you want any child, spending any more time than they have to in George Wythe,” he said.

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