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Why can't school, city leaders agree on size of new Wythe? 'We're leaving students behind'

Community calls on city, school board to build a new George Wythe High School without delay
Posted at 8:23 PM, Mar 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-23 20:23:41-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Robin Mines flipped through pages of memories on a rainy Wednesday afternoon outside her Southside home.

Nostalgic recollections of her youthful days are found in her senior year yearbook. Mines was a 1976 graduate of George Wythe High School where she participated in nearly a dozen extracurricular activities including basketball, marching band, and student government.

“I’m really tied to this school. I love this school. I love the community," Mines said.

Her personal connection to the school has been a driving force behind her advocacy to push for a new Wythe High. In the decades since Mines attended Wythe, she said almost nothing has changed to the building.

In fact, she said it's only gotten worse.

"They're not only walking into cracked floors, walls, and leaky and stained ceilings but they're exposed to rat and roach infestation and rat urine," she said. "They're exposed to a lot of mold and mildew. We're leaving students behind."

School and city leaders have agreed on several occasions that Wythe is in poor condition and in need of repairs, but they disagree on how to build a new school. The school board, mayor, and city council members have been butting heads over the plans since they were announced in 2020 by Mayor Levar Stoney.

The lack of consensus continues to delay the timeline of construction.

“Right now, all we've gotten from our school board is delays," Mines said.

Tuesday night, members of the school board and city council met to hash out differences, but not without disruptions. At one point, two members of the school board walked out as their colleague, Stephanie Rizzi, was speaking.

"Are you guys getting up while I'm talking? Wow," Rizzi said.

Much of the two-hour meeting was spent debating the size of a new Wythe. A majority of the school board wants to build a facility for 1,600 students, but most of the city council said the building should hold 2,000 students.

“It just boils down to understanding that we're a growing city and the growth is particularly happening in our in our Southside," said Lincoln Saunders, Richmond's Chief Administrative Officer.

Saunders showed CBS 6 data Wednesday afternoon to back the city's call for a school that can fit 2,000 students.

"Over the past three years, Wythe enrollment has grown by an average of 83 students per year," Saunders said. "And if that rate of increase were to continue, that school would have 1,741 students in Fall 2026. Based on the timeline for construction, under a school's management process, the school would open over capacity on day one."

But the board majority said it's an issue of rezoning and that they can save money to renovate or build schools in other parts of the city if they construct a smaller Wythe. Board member Jonathan Young also claimed that increased enrollment in the city's specialty schools will reduce enrollment at Wythe.

Council president, Cynthia Newbille, suggested a compromise Tuesday evening: a school that fits 1,800. Board Chair, Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed, said the school board would discuss the compromise as a body.

Board member Kenya Gibson also asked city council members about the $7.3 million in school construction funding in the city's possession currently. The board has been asking for the money to be transferred for several months, but the city has continued to delay the transfer of funds.

The board majority claimed that they could have already started designing a new Wythe had the money been transferred, but the city said both bodies need to come to an agreement on the facility's size first.

“Is the council confident that the school board has a design that isn't going to lead to us building $150 million worth of a school that doesn't meet our needs? I think that is what is causing pause and concern from the council who is responsible for approving the budget as introduced by the mayor," Lincoln said.

Council and the board were also supposed to discuss construction models Tuesday but did not get around to it. The type of model they choose will impact the timelines of construction for Wythe and Fox Elementary.

The mayor has expressed support for a construction manager at-risk model which is what the city used to design its last three schools. Saunders explained under that model, it's possible to begin early phases of construction as the design is completed.

"You're able to save nine to 12 months by overlapping those two workflows, as opposed to the process for design-bid-build," he said.

Under a design-bid-build model, "You fully 100% complete design, then you bet it out, then you construct," Saunders explained.

Ultimately, Tuesday's meeting ended with no concrete decisions made about the future of Wythe. The City council is set to meet again next week and could hold another vote about the transfer of funds to the school board.

The school board isn't set to meet again until April and will then have an opportunity to discuss the size of a new Wythe.

Mines said she'll be keeping her eyes on her elected officials for the sake of her Southside community.

"They deserve the best. They deserve much more than the City of Richmond has been giving," she said." “I’m not having it, and I’m going to speak until the fight is over.”

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