City Council rejects turning over design funding for new George Wythe High

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/31/2022, 6 p.m.
Will a new George Wythe High School ever get built?
George Wythe High School Photo by Regina H. Boone

Will a new George Wythe High School ever get built?

In the latest twist in the yearlong battle for control of the school’s construction, City Council on Monday rejected a proposal to transfer funds needed by the Richmond School Board to begin the replacement of the decrepit Wythe building that every elected official and virtually every community member has said cannot wait.

After four months of debate, meetings and continuances, City Council failed to muster the six votes needed to amend the budget and move $7.3 million from a city account to Richmond Public Schools so it can hire an architect to start design of the replacement building and advance the goal of starting construction within a year.

Essentially, the council sent a message that the School Board must comply with the council’s demand to build a larger school building or the money would not be forthcoming.

The larger building would accommodate 2,000 students, while the School Board believes a 1,600-seat building would be the right size, in large part because of pending plans for development of a second 1,000-seat high school in South Side that would focus on career and technical education.

The council vote came on the same night that RPS launched a three-week series of community engagement meet- ings seeking input from students, parents, teachers, community residents and anyone else about what they want to see in the new building. The meetings are scheduled to continue almost nightly through Friday, April 15, at various locations.

Based on the council’s rules of procedure, unless waived or amended, only one option remains for the governing body to restore momentum to the project to replace the 61-year-old high school building in South Side in which nearly 1,300 students are enrolled.

The council is now reviewing Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year and, according to interim City Attorney Haskell C. Brown III, the council would have authority through May 31 to move the $7.3 million so it would be available to RPS at the July 1 transfer proposal Mayor Stoney introduced in November. That was two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget amendment. The three other council members present abstained from voting.

The Stoney administration supported rejection of the money transfer.

The pro-transfer votes came from City Council members Katherine Jordan, 2nd District; Ann-Frances Lambert, 3rd District; Kristen Nye, 4th District; and Stephanie A. Lynch, 5th District.

Ms. Nye, a former School Board member, once again urged her colleagues to allow RPS and its board to proceed on a project that is solely theirs to handle.

Ms. Lynch, who supports a larger school, said that stopping the development process would be the worst outcome.

“There are far bigger things that council and the School Board need to work together on than arm wrestling about school construction.”

The three council members who abstained from voting were Andreas D. Addison, 1st District; Council President Cynthia I. Newbille, 7th District; and Reva M. Trammell, 8th District.

Before the meeting, Mr. Addison tried and failed to win majority support for continuing the matter until April 11, when the two absent council members, Council Vice President Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, and Dr. Michael J. Jones, 9th District, are expected to be present.

The key issue for the abstainers is the size disagreement that began after a five-member majority of the School Board wrenched control from the city of new school construction in April 2021.

The School Board’s majority has argued that development of the second technical and career high school would ensure the 1,600-student George Wythe was large enough. The board also has noted that current enrollment has dropped at the school since 2019, with the current enrollment of nearly 1,300 being down at least 100 students from three years ago.

Mayor Stoney and the majority of the council have insisted that a new George Wythe building for 2,000 students is the only way to meet the projected population and student enrollment growth expected for South Side, though Mrs. Robertson last week offered a compromise of having the new school built for 1,800 students.

Monday’s council vote followed a disclosure from Lincoln Saunders, the city’s chief administrative officer, that he was notified by School Board Chair Shonda Harris- Muhammad, 6th District, that the board’s majority had rejected the compromise.

Two members of the School Board, Cheryl Burke, 7th District, and Dawn Page, 8th District, who support a 2,000-seat school but have been outvoted, were among the speakers Monday urging the council to halt the money transfer until the School Board majority gives in.

The lone citizen voice supporting the money transfer was Kristin Reed, a school advocate with Richmond for All, who noted that a new George Wythe has been talked about for 20 years and that halting the transfer would mean the Wythe community would enter its third decade of waiting for a replacement building.

Mr. Addison said that a school for 1,600 would be too small for a growing city. “We need to build for the future,” he said, noting that a new George Wythe would remain in use for 40 to 50 years.

Dr. Newbille agreed with the mayor that the School Board’s push for a smaller school could ensure the building, projected to enroll 1,700 students by 2027, would be overcrowded when it opened. She said employing trailers to add space would be unacceptable.

“I am certainly hopeful that the School Board will revisit the numbers at this point,” Dr. Newbille said. “I have reservations about moving forward with this.”

After the vote, Dr. Harris-Muhammad expressed disappointment that the capacity issue dictated the outcome after she said she received assurances that would not be the case.

School Board member Kenya Gibson, 3rd District, who supports the smaller school, stated in an email: “City Council has passed on another opportunity to transfer funding allowing us to move forward with a new George Wythe. As such, the council also passed on supporting democratically governing schools.”