Month after month, meeting after meeting, Richmond Public Schools administrators have repeated the same thing: It’s only a matter of time before years of deferred maintenance to school buildings come back to haunt the district.
On Monday, a faulty cooling system at Armstrong High School sent temperatures inside the nearly 50-year-old building soaring, says Tommy Kranz, RPS’ assistant superintendent in charge of operations. The issue arose after multiple smaller fixes to the system failed, Kranz told School Board members at Monday night's meeting.
“We’ve deferred that maintenance for so long and our equipment is so old,” Kranz says. “These are the things that keep me up at night.”
The board unanimously voted to close the East End high school on Tuesday on an emergency basis, as administrators feared temperatures inside of the building would creep into 80s and would not be safe for students and staff. On Monday afternoon, Kranz says, temperatures inside the building reached 84.
“It was very, very stifling, I mean hot,” says April Hawkins, the school’s principal. The conditions made it difficult to keep students focused, she says, but teachers did their best.
Several board members were unhappy they did not find out about the issue before the meeting.
“I know I’ve stated before: When things happen in the district, call us and notify us,” says Shonda Harris-Muhammed, the 6th District representative.
Superintendent Dana Bedden defended the administration’s response to the issue, which he and Kranz say they found out about at 4:30 p.m.
“When an emergency crisis happens, my first priority is trying to get things under control for the students and staff,” Bedden says. “Not spending time on the phone.”
The district posted a notice of the closing on its Facebook page around 7 p.m.
RPS’ facilities woes are well-documented. A report released by the district in April detailed maintenance issues in each of its buildings. Bringing the facilities up to modern standards is expected to cost more than $500 million over the next two decades. The board is expected to decide on a long-term plan to address the issues in the coming months.
Last year, RPS had to move Elkhardt Middle School students mid-year because of a persistent mold issue at the building. At Armstrong, the district already has spent $20,000, not counting labor costs, to fix the cooling system since the start of the school year. Another repair effort is planned for tomorrow. Replacing the system would cost about $1.5 million, Kranz says.The district is planning for the worst-case scenario, Kranz told the board, but as of Monday evening, the school was expected to be closed only one day.