Richmond Superintendent can't recall if he knew about alarm issues before Fox fire

'Obviously this was a clear misstep'
Posted at 7:26 AM, Jun 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-14 23:27:22-04

RICHMOND, Va. — Richmond Public Schools (RPS) Superintendent Jason Kamras said he did not recall if he knew about a multitude of issues with the fire alarm panels at multiple schools prior to a catastrophic fire that destroyed William Fox Elementary.

"Obviously this was a clear misstep, so I am not going to try to convince anyone otherwise. Clearly, this should have been fixed. It wasn't," Kamras said in an interview with CBS 6 Problem Solver Melissa Hipolit.

As fire alarms started failing throughout the Richmond Public School System in late December through early February, staff submitted work orders, and Richmond Schools facilities contacted the alarm monitoring company, Richmond Alarm.

And, yet, after a catastrophic fire that destroyed Fox Elementary School, Richmond Alarm found at least 25 Richmond school buildingshad alarm panels that were not testing properly, including Fox.

Emails obtained by the Problem Solvers through a Freedom of Information Act request showed Richmond Alarm told RPS facilities they needed to contact subcontractors to make some of the fixes, and in other instances, Richmond Alarm said parts were on backorder.

But, the reality is none were fixed.

Retired Superintendent Dr. Charles Maranzano, who used to run school divisions in New Jersey and Virginia, said he was stunned by what the Problem Solvers uncovered.

"What I read in these emails and exchanges is absolutely unforgivable from a superintendent's perspective," Maranzano said. "How low is the bar in Richmond City Schools? That's my question. If this is an indication, this, the most important thing, isn't being taken care of, what else is happening?"

We requested an interview with Kamras on the subject three times before our original story aired, but his spokesperson, Sarah Abubaker, was unable to get us on his schedule, stating on one ocassion that he was "slammed."

But after our initial investigation aired last month, Abubaker immediately scheduled the interview.

"I saw [your story]...People don't realize this but I really appreciate the scrutiny," Kamras said. "Should those panels have been addressed right away? Absolutely, period, full stop and they weren't. We've addressed it, and now we move forward."

Kamras said his former Chief Operating Officer, Alana Gonzalez, who resigned at the end of May, had weekly meetings with the facilities staff and then checked in weekly with Kamras.

"During these check-ins, did you ever hear about issues going on with the alarm panels?" Hipolit asked.

"Honestly, I don't recall, I just don't," Kamras said.

"So you're saying you don't remember if you were ever informed that there were issues with the alarm panels?" Hipolit clarified.

"I honestly don't. There is so much stuff that comes across my desk I just don't recall," Kamras replied

"How have you held your staff accountable for what happened here?" Hipolit asked

"I can't share personnel matters," Kamras said.

"Without going into specifics do you feel like you've held staff accountable?" Hipolit asked

 "I do," Kamras replied.

Kamras said he is now focused on making sure this never happens again.

"All of our alarm panels have either been replaced or updated, they are all communicating now. Not only that, we have added knox boxes to all schools," Kamras said.  "We put in place the policies, procedures, and practices that are needed to prevent it from happening in the future."

Part of the issue here is that Richmond Alarm was bought out by Johnson Controls at the beginning of 2022 and when that happened they stopped hiring the subcontractors to work on the panels and made RPS hire them.

However, RPS did not have a solid contract in place with the alarm company that identified an exact scope of work.

In an email sent by the former procurement director, Charles Ward, on March 8, 2021 to Gonzalez and Kamras's Chief of Staff, Michelle Hudackso, Ward listed a number of contracts that needed a new scope of work in order to do a solicitation to put a contract in place.

Fire alarm inspection and repair topped the list.

Hudackso responded that the marquees' contract needed to be done ASAP or all of them would fall by the wayside.

"I'm not familiar with all of those, but as I said before, should those have been addressed expeditiously? Yes, it was a misstep," Kamras said.

RPS spokeswoman Sarah Abubaker later said in an email that Hudackso was only commenting directly on the item she was associated with, as she was supporting the installation of marquees, which are exterior signs, at select schools.

"Admittedly, there were inefficiencies with RPS procurement at the time of this email exchange. We take those seriously and have already begun to implement a number of new systems and processes within procurement and facilities to enhance efficiency," Abubaker wrote in an email.

This is not the only operations failure Richmond school leaders are having to fix.

In the past month, an internal auditor found the school system purchased 20,000 extra laptops that were never used, and RPS was criticized for taking nearly three days to completely clean up blood left inside Community High School after a break-in.

"Do you think you are doing a good job as Superintendent managing this operation?" Hipolit asked.

"Look, we have great room for improvement, I've always said that.  We also are doing some incredible things here at RPS. My commitment is to continually be honest about what is great and what is not so great, keep working on the things not so great, improve them, fix them, move forward, and keep moving in a positive direction," Kamras said.

Kamras said despite the problems with the alarm panels, he does believe RPS students were kept safe.

He said because of the current COO vacancy, he is currently playing a more direct role with the facilities department.

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