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Richmond School Board can move forward on new Wythe High School after siding with Stoney, Council

Posted at 6:51 PM, Apr 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-11 23:29:52-04

UPDATE: The Richmond School Board voted 5-4 to agree to the city's compromise proposal to build a school large enough to teach 1,800 students. That vote triggers the transfer of more than $7 million from the city to Richmond Schools so planning and work can begin on a new George Wythe High School.

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond City Council leaders announced a final effort Monday to compromise with the Richmond School Board over the future of a new George Wythe High School in South Richmond.

Tisha Erby, a Richmond parent to one Wythe graduate and four future graduates, said she only wanted the best for her children.

"As a parent, this makes me terrified," she said. "Would you send your school there?"

Erby has been advocating for a new school building since plans were initially announced by Mayor Stoney in October 2020.

She said the building has continued to fall apart since she attended the school years ago and said her kids deserved better.

“They are the future," Erby said. "These kids go to this building to learn, to get an education, to go to college. They might come back and be the president.”

While the mayor, council, and school board all agree the aging school needed to be replaced, they're at odds over its size.

Stoney and most council members have pushed for a school with a 2,000-student capacity. They cite a growing population in South Richmond and Cropper enrollment projections that showed Wythe with 1,741 students by Fall 2026.

However, a majority of the Richmond School Board claimed those enrollment estimates were wrong and wanted a 1,600-student school.

Cropper projected Wythe to have 1,541 students for the 2021-2022 school year. In reality, current enrollment is just under 1,300.

Richmond City Council members have argued the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily threw off the numbers.

The conflict over the school capacity is why Richmond City Council rejected to transfer more than $7 million, allocated to school construction, to the Richmond School Board.

The school board has asked for those funds for several months.

The money was leftover from building the city's last round of new schools including Cardinal Elementary, Henry Marsh Elementary, and River City Middle.

The Richmond School Board majority claimed the money rightfully belonged to them after voting in 2021 to take control of school construction projects. The city maintained control over the last three schools, and some school board members accused the city of overspending taxpayer dollars.

Most council members have voted against transferring the money because they said they wanted to protect taxpayer dollars from being spent on a school that doesn't best serve the needs of Southside students.

The school board said it already has a contract and architect in place to begin the Wythe design and blamed the city for stalling construction.

“I, along with members of the City Council, will present one last offer at compromise," Mayor Stoney said at a Monday press conference.

Now, in a final plea to the board to meet in the middle, Stoney said Richmond City Council would only transfer the $7 million to the Richmond School Board agreed to design a school for 1,800 students.

“They call for the design of a school that would have the ability to expand and grow in the future," the mayor said.

The mayor said he was optimistic that at least one board member would change their mind, but if not, the money would remain in the city's capital account.

“If they say no, they’re saying no to building a school at all," Stoney said.

In a statement to CBS 6, School Board Chair, Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed said in part:

"I remain deeply concerned as a school board member, that the release of funding is tied to our ad rem of the capacity of the new learning facility. However, I will support the will of the board on the decision of the student and staff capacity."

During a joint meeting in March between the Richmond City Council and the Richmond School Board, 5th District School Board Representative Stephanie Rizzi expressed to Council President Cynthia Newbille that it seemed like council would continue withholding the $7 million from the school board until the body agreed to a compromise.

“It totally feels like we are here to agree to your terms before you release the funds," Rizzi said in the meeting.

Newbille responded that was 'absolutely not' the case.

On Monday, CBS 6 asked Newbille what changed since that meeting in March.

“I indicated that the paper would be coming to council and that council would be decisioning on it," Newbille said. "There was nothing that predicated on the size of the building. Period.”

Meanwhile, school board member Jonathan Young said he was confident that a school for 1,600 won't lead to further issues down the road.

"1,800 makes zero sense," Young said. "I'm not prepared to spend millions of dollars unnecessarily on a school for 1,800 students."

Young pointed to the fact that there are already 2,500 vacant seats in high schools across the district, including hundreds at Huguenot High School which is also located in South Richmond. Young said rezoning would solve any potential problems relevant to future overcrowding at Wythe.

Young maintained that building a smaller Wythe would mean more money for other Richmond schools in need of repair, including Woodville Elementary.

"There's absolutely zero justification to spend tens of millions of dollars on what will amount to vacant seats in lieu of doing what is right for our students and teachers to erect a new and renovated Woodville Elementary in Church Hill," he said.

However, he said he'd like for an architect to sketch a rendering of a potential additional wing just in case additional space is needed "decades from now."

"I'm highly suspicious that would ever materialize," Young said. "But it's not a lot to ask our architects to include on their renderings a footprint, dotted lines for lack of better description, an additional wing and what that would look like."

Mayor Stoney will introduce an ordinance to Richmond City Council regarding the transfer of funds during a meeting Monday night. It needs six votes to pass.

Dr. Harris-Muhammed said the Richmond School Board will discuss the compromise Monday night during a meeting and that she will support the will of the board no matter what it decided.

As parents like Erby pay attention to the process, she said every delay hurts Southside students. She said she did not feel like their voices were represented on school board.

“This is wrong what they're doing," Erby said. "And it hurts me to my soul that they're not making the building.”

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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