RICHMOND, Va. -- A proposal to address fire safety within Richmond Public Schools sparked a heated disagreement among school board members Monday night.
The Richmond Education Association (REA), a union that represents RPS employees, drafted a resolution requesting that the school board adopt policies to ensure compliance with the statewide fire prevention code.
The proposal followed a CBS 6 report which showed 70% of Richmond schools were in violation of the fire code as of August 21, the first day of school, according to school fire inspection reports obtained through a public records request.
190 total violations were cited.
Beth Almore, an RPS teacher and member of REA, spoke at Monday's meeting in support of the resolution. She brought with her a picture of her aunt who she said died from smoke inhalation during a fire.
“When I saw the reports that there were 190 fire code violations, yes, I would describe my reaction as ‘shock,'" Almore said. "Particularly in buildings in such an advanced state of disrepair as we have in the city, it is incumbent upon us to adhere more strictly to the fire code than other localities."
On September 18, Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter penned a letter to Superintendent Jason Kamras stating none of the 190 violations cited during the inspection period would have prevented schools from opening.
Carter said the most common infractions were obstructed exits, missing ceiling tiles, improper use of electrical cords, broken or missing electrical outlet coverings, improper exit lighting, and general housekeeping and storage.
During Monday's meeting, RPS Chief Operating Officer Dana Fox reiterated that the nature of violations appeared minor.
“Yes, there were a lot of violations, and a lot of those were smaller things that can be addressed by classroom management," Fox said. "It is also a challenge to have all of these buildings inspected and to have all of these reports done. The same fire marshal doesn't do every inspection. There's multiple fire marshals. So sometimes you have a very long list. Sometimes there's a short list."
During a prior school board meeting on October 2, board member Liz Doerr dismissed CBS 6's initial report as "fake news" since the violations were not serious enough to close schools and the facilities team promptly addressed the issues.
“This body has an obligation to correct the insinuation that fire code violations are trivial," Almore said.
The REA shared its proposed resolution with CBS 6. It requests that the board adopt policies that would set criteria for which violations would impact school operations, timelines for fixing violations, procedures for relocating staff and students if buildings are deemed unsafe, and communicating fire code violations with parents.
However, a majority of the board opted not to consider the resolution, or make it public, at the advice of legal counsel.
Board member Nicole Jones noted that REA is an outside organization and some of their suggestions are not regulated by the board and do not take into account budgetary impacts.
"We're putting ourselves at jeopardy. How are we going to adopt a resolution, if that's the case, we can adopt a resolution from anybody at any time someone wants to put a resolution forward," Jones said.
Board Chair Stephanie Rizzi said it was the consensus of the board majority to not publicly post REA's resolution on its agenda.
In an email to CBS 6 Tuesday, Rizzi explained that the reason the board did not post the resolution was because legal counsel advised there were "numerous issues" with unclear language and unreasonable demands.
"The REA drafted policy without consulting or collaborating with Board members or notifying administration. At the very least, the Resolutions should have been vetted by the Board's Policy Committee," Rizzi said. "In short, it did not appear that the resolutions had been crafted in consultation with [Virginia Education Association] Counsel."
Regardless, board member Kenya Gibson made a motion to adopt the action items of the resolution which led to a tense discussion.
“The optics do not look good, and I want to give everybody on this board the opportunity to be on the right side of history. We have had two buildings burn down," Gibson said. “We had 190 violations before the start of school despite being told otherwise. Board colleagues, someone called that fake news. It was not.”
The board's Vice Chair Cheryl Burke told Gibson she was "out of order," and Gibson accused Burke of hiding the "truth."
“I am not out of order. Someone is trying to stop the truth. You are trying to stop the truth from coming out, and I will continue," Gibson said.
“Right now, you’re bullying. You are harassing," Burke responded. "This is anti-bullying month. Here it is.”
Superintendent Kamras reminded the board that all fire code violations have since been fixed, and he defended his facilities team's efforts in addressing those concerns.
“As soon as we become aware of any such issue, whether it's related to fire or anything else, we do our very best to immediately address those issues," Kamras said.
“Respectfully, Mr. Kamras, we were told there was extreme neglect," Gibson said, referencing a CBS 6 report from September 2022 that revealed an assistant fire marshal accused the RPS facilities director of "extreme neglect" during the school inspection process prior to the Fox Elementary fire.
Other board members also took offense to Gibson's approach.
“I’m not sure what my colleague is doing here, gaslighting or whatever you’re doing," board member Mariah White said.
“I know that every single human on this board cares deeply about student safety, and to insinuate that we don’t is insulting," board member Liz Doerr said.
Ultimately, only Jonathan Young voted in support of Gibson's motion, with Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed abstaining. The motion failed.
Dana Fox said moving forward, she has shared information with staff members about what constitutes a fire code violation. Some of those things, she said, staff may not be aware of, like hanging Christmas lights on the bulletin board or not posting evacuation maps in classrooms.
"A lot of times you just don't know what you don't know," Fox said. "We have zero violations to date for the year. But the things that were noted in that heavy document we've been addressing, and we've been working to address it with folks outside of the facilities and operations teams."
Gibson said she was unavailable for an interview Tuesday but sent CBS 6 a statement that read in part:
"I am truly thankful that educators with the Richmond Education Association have been organizing in defense of RPS families and themselves. They’ve called for the board to adopt policies that would require our buildings to be in compliance with fire safety regulations, and to notify the public when violations occur. In my capacity as a democratically-elected School Board member, I’ve done everything in my power to ensure that the resolutions they advanced be thoughtfully considered. I’m in shock that Ms. Rizzi, our board chair, repeatedly took steps to block sharing these proposals with the public, preventing a lawful democratic process. It’s unfathomable to me that a school board that has claimed to be committed to supporting teachers and equity throughout the district would attempt to politically defeat an effort from our teachers to ensure fire safety for all."
When asked for a response to Gibson's comments, Rizzi provided a statement that read in part:
"It is unfortunate that there are individuals who do not trust the very people who work tirelessly day in and day out to keep our aging facilities safe. Public schools facilities in general have long suffered from a lack of funding, and our facilities team struggles with increasing building issues and a budget not nearly enough to cover maintenance. This is a nationwide issue. I encourage all stakeholders to consider advocating for more state and federal support for public schools' facilities needs. Our children deserve the best. I would love to have a trusting collaborative relationship with the REA. Working together, we could do so much for the good of our children.
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