Poor conditions at RPS facilities await mayoral solution

Continuous financial shortcomings from City Hall are not enough to address RPS’s crumbling schools; the top three mayoral candidates give their solutions to the $563 million deficit.

RICHMOND, Va.- The poor conditions of many Richmond Public School (RPS) facilities is an issue at the forefront this election season, especially when fresh perspectives will take over as Mayor of Richmond, School Board and City Council members.

“The state of the facilities are this: the district has about 4.7 million square feet of space, and we as a district receive for just general maintenance repairs about $1.8 million per year,” Tommy Kranz, RPS chief operating officer, said. “We should receive over $16 million per year between CIP [Capital Improvement Project] and the budget for upkeep, but we’re receiving $5.5 million.”

The facilities face similar issues: the leaking ceilings cause water hazards that compel teachers to accompany their students down the hall for safety, and children and teachers complain about respiratory illness because of mold infestations. A 15-year plan worth $563 million includes rezoning, consolidations and renovations, but chronic underfunding offers little hope of moving forward.

“Everyday that goes without maintenance, when we defer the maintenance, our cost goes up more and more,” Kimberly Gray, RPS school board member and 2nd District City Council candidate, said. She has been a vocal advocate for change during her six-year career on the Board and almost 20 years as an RPS parent. She noted that many schools haven’t seen renovations in decades, with some for over 50 years. Facilities should be renovated every 25 to 50 years, according to state standards.

The current RPS Facilities Report put out by Richmond Forward, a community advocacy group, outlines exactly where the $563 million needs to go. According to the organization, a survey found that 76 percent of the community supported building new facilities to replace the old, and 70 percent rated current RPS facilities as fair to poor. The report also shows where those funds can come from, which includes historic tax credits, public-private partnerships, state/federal grants or loans, among other possible solutions.

The conditions have been reported by several news outlets in the Richmond area, including Style Weekly, in a piece two years ago by Tom Nash. He cited student protests, teachers calling in sick and “black ooze” in buckets and on the floor.

“We’ve had more issues than last year. Teachers and students are complaining of allergies and breathing complications from mold,” Gray said. “These issues aren’t going away.”

Mayor Dwight Jones stood in front of the City Council in March of this year to present his newest budget, and according to WTVR-CBS 6, members were outraged over the lack of provided resources. Jones’ latest plan shelled out $5 million of the proposed $18 million for building repairs for safety and health reasons.

“I don’t think it went far enough. We have proven that we can find money when it serves a corporate interest or sports teams, so we need to find a way to make things happen for the children in the city,” Gray said. “It’s disappointing.”

The leading mayoral candidates are Joe Morrissey, Levar Stoney and Jack Berry. Each has answered questions about their specific plan to address education, but they had yet to mention the $563 million facilities report.

Their plans as to where that money will stem from vary. Morrissey cites the historic tax credits as his main source of funding if elected mayor. He said that by eliminating the exclusion clause of schools in the credit, it would free up about $300 million dollars to go towards the rehabilitation of schools.

According to his campaign website, Morrissey lists eight other options to get the average 55-year-old facilities back up to acceptable standards. His plan includes to “relentlessly implement” the School Board-approved Capital Improvement Plan for education, which is the plan Jones proposed in March.

Stoney’s focus has been on the children, since the most important aspect is their experience in school and making sure that their conditions are the best they can be in order to learn.

“By bringing the school board, the city council, the superintendents to the table to go over my Education Compact, we’re going to work out what we’re going to do about facilities and what we’re going to do about schools over the next five to 10 years,” Stoney said.

He repeated the need to focus on the students and show them that their education is valuable through his education platform by upgrading facilities to bring them into the 21st century.

“It can’t be done alone, and those dollars can be possible if we all work together to find them year by year, and I’m just not seeing that now from our current leadership,” Stoney said.

The answer Berry cites comes from his plans to create a Mayor’s Education Advisory Council to help implement a five-year financial plan that focuses on Richmond’s real estate tax revenues along with the baseline budget.

“It needs be started with a phase one, and I think it can come from the Capital Budget, including debt capacity that can free up year six through 10, as well as additional money that’s going to come as tax-evaded properties go back on the tax roles,” Berry said. “ I think a creative financing strategy that brings some of that financing capacity forward, will enable us to get a good start on the big, overall plan.”

While plans have been underway for the facilities, a nonprofit was started because of the mistrust in local government to aid the crumbling schools. Building a Better RPS was founded by RPS parent Scott Garnett to bring the community together to improve and repair the facilities.

“We have lots of people that would come out and help and say, ‘we shouldn’t have to be here. Shouldn’t this be done by the government and shouldn’t this be funded?’” Garnett said. “It probably should.”

The group has raised over $20,000 since the nonprofit was established in May of this year. Garnett wants the candidates’ focus to remain on the issue of RPS’s unacceptable conditions.

“We did not want this to get pushed off down the road, so that’s why we rushed it to make this front and center. This ought to be the number one topic that people ought to be talking about,” Garnett said.

With the issue of RPS facilities at the forefront of the race, alongside blossoming nonprofits and fundraising events for schools, the winning candidate still has ground to cover once in office. Building a bridge to close that $563 million gap has yet to be proven doable as the water still drips and the mold continues to grow.