This new Richmond school is already overcrowded. Leaders can't agree on a solution.

River City Middle School
Posted at 4:58 PM, Apr 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-28 23:38:31-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Over a dozen parents, community leaders, and elected officials held a news conference outside River City Middle School Thursday morning to criticize a decision earlier this week by the Richmond Public School (RPS) Board to not approve a rezoning plan for the overcrowded school and called on them to reconsider.

"Enough is enough and we're fed up. Let's do something different," said Becca DuVal, an RPS parent of a rising Binford Middle School student. "We want schools that once they are built…we do not want them overcrowded. We don't want our kids learning in hallways."

The school opened this past year and, during presentations on the overcrowding issue, officials stated it was built for a capacity of 1,500 students but currently has a student population of over 1,600. That number could reach over 1,700 by the 2024-25 school year.

"It is a safety issue now. Parents are calling me now -- they are afraid to send their child to school," said 9th District Board Member Nicole Jones, who represents the area. "This side of the river is tired. And we deserve the same economic justice, educational justice, health, justice, food justice, and everything else that everybody else in this city deserves."

At Monday's board meeting, the board was presented with an option to rezone the school and spread over 400 students amongst Thomas C. Boushall, Lucille M. Brown, and Binford Middle Schools. The move would have brought capacity at each school to roughly 75%.

The vote failed the 5-4. Those who voted against the plan raised concerns about transportation, cost, and impact on open enrollment.

Jones voted in favor of the plan and issued a statement Wednesday, alongside the other members who voted in the minority, criticizing the decision.

"We convened a committee, we engaged the community, we brought teachers, parents, principals, and everyone that was needed -- including transportation to be a part of that process," said Jones. "And in us kind of working through some nuances of what areas need to be rezoned or who needs to go where -- we came up with a solution. For once, it was a good one. And in us coming up with that solution our goal was to provide the school board with a recommendation, which we did, and when we did that, we were received with, of course, a denial."

Ninth District Councilmember Mike Jones, who called the news conference, asked what message the board's decisions sends

"That they must settle for less than optimal learning environments than an overcrowded school to preserve open enrollment, to utilize Glenn Youngkin talking points?" said Mike Jones. "We know that education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. Positive education outcomes can be linked to increased social mobility and the reduction of crime. We should be chomping at the bit as adults to do everything we can to aid in our children's success."

When asked about the next steps, Mikes Jones indicated a potential resolution from the city council.

"My colleagues on council, we need to look at not allowing the school to sit at over 100% capacity when there are other schools nearby, that are at 75% capacity, that can't be allowed in something like that to be codified," added Mike Jones. "You should never have to codify to do the right thing, but if that's what needs to happen, a resolution can come forth from council easily."

CBS 6 reached out to the five members of the school board that voted in the majority for a response to the letter and news conference and received responses from the board chair and vice-chair.

RPS School Board member Jonathan Young was one of the five board members who voted no on Monday night on the plan.

"What the administration proposed made zero sense," Young said. "My concerns specifically include appropriating a quarter of our middle school space to vacancy. Just doesn't make any sense to cap our middle school buildings at 75%," Young said.

Young pointed to RPS enrollment as further support for his position.

"Well, I wish we had that problem. I really do. I wish that we were growing enrollment in Richmond Public Schools. But the truth is that we are retreating. We are losing students," Young said.

"First, every elected or appointed school board member's duty is to follow all school board policies and govern accordingly. I have advised school board members who were referenced in the press release that was formulated by our school board colleagues to refrain from responding and remain focused on our duty as school board members," wrote Board Chair and 6th District Representative Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed. "I fervently believe that every Richmond School Board member would not intentionally or otherwise place any child in harm’s way. Democracy is difficult for any entity to maneuver while remaining steadfast in your convictions. I applaud the work we do when we remain focused on the work at hand and not the emotional garment that unfortunately is brought with decision-making as leaders. We are passionate about our division. Unfortunately, the image is that several school board representatives have decided to place students in harm’s way. This is a bold, irrational, and fallacious statement to make about school board representatives who hold the division leadership accountable and monitor the status of requested tasks. Our purview is to hold the superintendent accountable while monitoring the progress of the superintendent and the school division."

"Lastly, we are reviewing the River City Rezoning recommendation at our next school board meeting on May 2. We have time to make the best decision for all students regardless of their zip code and I believe regardless of the false narrative by others, we will accomplish what is best for our students. This is our role as school board representatives," added Harris-Muhammed.

"Last year, City Council adopted a budget that cut our school maintenance funding in half. So if it weren't tragic, it would be humorous that a City Council member insists that a top-down, unfunded mandate should be forced. We serve on a democratically-elected school board, operating in the context of decades of defunding," wrote Vice-Chair and 3rd District Member Kenya Gibson. "RPS students already have to wake up earlier than recommended to compensate for an acute shortage of bus drivers. They deserve a school board that is willing to ask hard questions before advancing a policy that will transport students across the city to go to school. It’s our responsibility to address rezoning in a way that meets the needs of our city, and the feverish response doesn't serve that purpose - it inhibits it. Our administration promised to provide the budget and transportation details we’ve requested at our meeting on Monday. I hope that those details outline a plan that will have the full support of the board."

River City Middle School Rezoning is listed on the agenda for the board's May 2 meeting.

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