City disputes audit showing Richmond overspent taxpayer dollars building schools

Richmond's chief administrative officer claims school board is 'manipulating data'
Richmond City Hall
Posted at 5:55 PM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 17:57:20-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As a clash between city and school leaders continues to push back the timeline of building a new George Wythe High School, city officials have accused some school board members of manipulating cost data regarding school construction.

Not only do a majority of school board members disagree with most city leaders about the size of a new facility, some members have also claimed the city wasted millions of taxpayer dollars during the construction of its last three schools: Henry Marsh Elementary, Cardinal Elementary, and River City Middle.

Representative Jonathan Young, who represents the 4th district on the school board, pointed to a 2020 report from the city's auditor which showed Richmond "needs improvement" on middle and elementary school construction costs.

“The city auditor identified that we spent millions of dollars more than was requisite on the last round of schools," Young said.

According to the audit, the statewide average to build new elementary schools in 2018 and 2019 was $283.22 per square foot but the city spent $324.28 per square foot on average.

However, city officials disputed the auditor's findings.

“We said at the time, we don't agree with the auditor's conclusion, and I think data that has come out since then has validated our position," said Richmond's Chief Administrative Officer, Lincoln Saunders.

Saunders cited the Virginia Department of Education's 2020-2021 Annual Cost Data Report and said the city's costs compared relatively to projects in other school districts across the state. Saunders said the updated report was not available to the auditor when he completed his 2020 report.

The 2020-2021 report listed five elementary schools, and the two most expensive schools to build were in Richmond:

  • Henry Marsh Elementary (Richmond): $347.19/sq. ft.
  • Cardinal Elementary (Richmond): $311.44/sq. ft.
  • New Kent Elementary (New Kent): $311.43/sq. ft.
  • Rosemount Lewis Elementary (Prince William): $300.43/sq. ft.
  • -E. W. Chittum Elementary (Chesapeake): $200.75/sq. ft.

Saunders noted the difference between New Kent and Cardinal, which are both Central Virginia schools, was only a penny per square foot. He also explained there could've been several reasons why the construction cost for Chittum Elementary was significantly lower than the rest of the projects.

Including Chittum, the updated statewide average for 2020-2021 was $290.65, still above Richmond's average.

"Those who are making comments about the cost of school construction are really just trying to use this to manipulate the data to make an argument that actually is not valid," Saunders said.

The 2020-2021 VDOE report listed two middle schools showing Richmond spent less money out of the two:

  • New Rustburg Middle (Campbell County): $320.31/sq. ft.
  • River City Middle (Richmond): $312.87

“They didn't do it well," said Young. "We're not going to let them repeat that.”

Mayor Levar Stoney said the school board was the body that chose to build three schools with $150 million and said they have analyzed the numbers incorrectly.

"I wish that I could help them with their math, but they're unwilling," Stoney said. "They've basically put their fingers in their ears and decided they didn't want to listen to the administration any longer."

CBS 6 also asked the mayor about Tuesday night's meeting between city council and school board members about the future of Wythe but ended with no resolve.

"I was saddened that we could not find a resolution to work together," the mayor said. "The fact that many are willing to do so, but there's a solid block that's unwilling, shows you why the gridlock has been set for so long."

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