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City council tables vote to transfer funds for new George Wythe

Community calls on city, school board to build a new George Wythe High School without delay
Posted at 12:08 AM, Dec 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-14 00:08:44-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond City Council voted to hold off on transferring funds for the construction of a new George Wythe High School for the time being over concerns that the school board's plan for the new school would not be large enough to meet the needs of the growing population.

"2,000 seats! 2,000 seats," community members chanted outside City Hall before the meeting Monday. They also chanted 'Wythe can't wait.'

But the same group saying the school couldn't wait were asking the city council to do just that-- take a step back and ensure that it gets built the right way. They said they didn’t trust the Richmond School Board to do that.

"We are demanding that city council withhold funds for George Wythe until the school board can show proof of what they're going to do with the funds," said Lakersha Williams.

The city held the pocketbook, voting Monday night on whether to transfer more than $7 million from one account to another. That formality would allow for the Richmond School Board to move forward with their plans to build the new George Wythe High School.

However, as of now, the school board planned to proceed with building a school that had a capacity for 1,600 students.

Community members and city leaders at Monday's meeting said with a growing Southside, that wouldn't be enough space. They fear students would be walking into a school that’s at capacity on day one.

"We already know that the studies have been done and a 2,000-seat school is required. COVID has taught us that we don’t want our kids on top of each other for one thing," said one community member who spoke during the public hearing.

Others said they felt their voices hadn't been heard and wanted the school board to listen to them.

"This is not about money, savings or prudent use of resources. This is about a school board that claims that it has the right to do this because it is democratically elected, yet it has failed to listen to the voices of its constituents," said another community member.

Superintendent Jason Kamras, who was there along with two school members, also expressed concern for the school board's plan.

"It gives me absolutely no pleasure to do anything that might cause a delay," said Kamras. "But it would give me even greater displeasure to open up a building that was not safe or conducive for students," said Kamras.

However, one city council member, Kristen Larson, who also used to serve on the school board, spoke in support of transferring the funds.

"Schools have the constitutional right to plan and build schools," said Larson. "This is their decision."

All school board members had been invited Monday but only two showed up. However, five school board members not in attendance sent an email endorsing the proposed transfer of funds.

Richmond School Board Vice-Chair Jonathan Young also sent CBS 6 the following statement:

Richmond Public Schools currently has 2,500 vacant seats in our high school buildings. Enrollment at George Wythe this year is 1,300. It would be highly irresponsible and a gross abuse of the taxpayers’ dollars to erect a facility with hundreds of seats that would go unfilled. The difference between what proponents of a 300,000 square foot school want and a 260,000 square foot school approved is at a minimum $16.4 million. My four colleagues and I plan to spend that $16.4 million on Woodville Elementary.

What is more, hundreds of equally deserving elementary students in Church Hill at Woodville are counting on the millions of dollars in savings to build them a new or renovated school.

To be clear, proponents of building an unnecessarily big George Wythe are telling the students at Woodville Elementary to get in line and wait. Instead, my colleagues are prioritizing maximizing the minimum and stretching every dollar to build not one school but instead three!”

My colleagues and I are proceeding with plans to erect a 260,000 square foot high school. To put that in context, the brand new JRTucker in Henrico is 280,000 square feet and designed to accommodate 1,990 students.

In the end, city leaders decided to continue the vote until their next meeting on Monday, January 10 and hoped to have a clearer plan from the school board by then.