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Audit: Richmond overspent millions in taxpayer dollars building new schools: "It's unacceptable"

Audit: Richmond overspent millions in taxpayer dollars building new schools: "It's unacceptable"
Posted at 5:36 PM, Mar 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-21 18:39:23-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Some Richmond school leaders maintain they want control over the construction of a new George Wythe High School citing an audit that showed the city overspent taxpayer dollars building the last round of new schools.

If there is one thing members of the Richmond School Board and Richmond City Council can agree on, it's that students and staff in Richmond deserve an upgraded and modernized educational experience.

“We have thousands of kids in our school buildings across the city that need new infrastructure," Richmond School Board Member Jonathan Young said.

It's a sentiment echoed by Richmond City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch.

“I bet you 95% of the residents in Richmond agree that our school buildings are not in good shape," she said.

However, they disagree on how to build new schools as the ongoing debate over the stalled construction of George Wythe High took center stage again this week.

A majority of the Richmond School Board wanted complete control of the construction process without involvement from the city.

It's part of a "Schools Build Schools" policy the board adopted in 2021 after Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced plans for a new Wythe in October 2020.

Young, who represents the city's 4th school district, is one of five members who supported the policy.

He points to a 2020 report from the city's auditor which showed the city overspent taxpayer dollars building the last round of new schools including Henry Marsh Elementary, Cardinal Elementary, and River City Middle.

“Money was wasted. It was not spent in a prudent way on the last round," Young said. "It's unacceptable."

When evaluating citywide capital improvements projects, the auditor listed middle and elementary school construction costs under "needs improvement."

According to the audit, the city spent more money than Chesterfield County and the statewide average to build new elementary schools in 2018 and 2019.

The state average is listed as $283.22 per square foot.

The city spent $324.28 per square foot.

Young said the difference totals millions of dollars that could have been used for other facilities in need of repair including Woodville Elementary.

He claimed the construction process would be handled more cost-efficiently if controlled by the school board.

“We are determined to maximize the minimum, to stretch every dollar, and to not repeat the mistakes that were made relevant to the last round of schools," Young explained.

Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch, who represents Wythe's district, admitted the city made missteps building the last three schools.

“We could always do a better job at fiscal management in government," Lynch said.

She noted it was important to add context as to why costs were higher.

Lynch listed several factors including that the city invested in environmentally friendly materials.

"The city spent more on those initial upfront costs on things like energy-efficient windows and lighting and HVAC systems that were more energy efficient," she said. "When you adjust for those factors and then adjust for inflation, we actually came under the average."

Lynch said she believed the Richmond School Board would be in over its head taking on the Wythe construction by not utilizing city resources. Mayor Stoney estimates the board would delay the construction timeline ever further.

“What we're asking the school board to do is to be efficient with their resources and build upon the collaboration that has already happened," she said.

However, Young said the collaboration didn't work last time and he doesn't want to go down the same path.

"Folks have done it before, and they didn't do it well," he said. "And they spent millions of dollars unnecessarily."

Lynch added the city doesn't have auditing authority over the board so there would be no way to track the board's fiscal management. She also said she's working on solutions to fix issues with overspending by the city.

"I've got legislation right now that I'm working on to create some forensic auditing power and authority and some really deep financial analysis before CIP dollars are released," she said.

In the midst of the political battle, Lynch said the needs of the children were getting lost.

“We’ve got parts of the ceiling that are literally crumbling due to water and mold," Lynch said. “George Wythe is facing insurmountable challenges.”

Council members and school board members will meet Tuesday night to discuss Wythe's construction timeline. The board is also asking the city to transfer $7 million intended for school construction back to the school board so they can get the ball rolling on Wythe.

The city has withheld the funds for several months claiming the board hasn't properly answered its questions as to how the money will be spent.

Young said the board has answered those questions numerous times.

"I'm confident that if we wrote a book about the topic tomorrow, the request would be to write a volume two," he said.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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