Fixing the Richmond Public School System’s dilapidated facilities is going to be costly. Very costly.
The RPS administration’s recommended plan for eliminating the system’s empty seats, updating its buildings and constructing new ones would cost in the neighborhood of $620 million, says Tommy Kranz, assistant superintendent in charge of facilities and operations. Kranz presented the long-awaited facilities needs report to the School Board at a meeting Monday night at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
“Understand this — this is something that would take 10 to 20 years to implement,” Kranz says. “It wouldn’t happen overnight. Even if the check was given to me tonight, it would still take 10 to 20 years. The money isn’t the answer. It takes time to do this and do it well.”
The plan, one of several options presented to the board for consideration, calls for the consolidation of several unnamed elementary schools, construction of several new school buildings, the renovation of existing buildings and rezoning south of the river. At the secondary level, the plan calls for the consolidation of four middle schools into two new middle schools as well as the construction of a new high school. By eliminating seats and updating facilities, the plan would save the system operating dollars that could be put back into the classroom, Kranz says.
The administration will seek the board’s approval to build a new elementary and middle school south of the river to head off projected capacity issues. Developing a rezoning plan is also a top priority, he says.
“To stress that we are still in a crisis, any day, any school can have a mechanical failure,” says Kimberly Gray, 2nd District School Board representative. “It’s a doable plan. It’s costly. But I think it’s more costly not to do anything.”
The report detailed projected capacity issues in the short- and long-term, as well as community feedback about the state of the district’s 45 school buildings. Some of the report’s findings include:
- Eighty-two percent of all RPS schools are more than 20 years old. One third are older than 50. Another third are older than 70. “These schools weren’t built to last that period of time, and they’re going to continue to age,” Kranz says.
- Since 2005, the school system has closed 17 schools and eliminated more than 6,600 seats. In that same period, RPS has opened four new schools with 575,000 square feet and 3,700 new seats.
- Of all survey respondents polled by the facilities task force, 74 percent rated the overall quality of RPS facilities as fair to poor.
Other board members expressed interest in a separate option, which relies more heavily on rezoning and consolidation than renovation or new construction. If the board endorses that plan, it could be implemented in the next two years and would cost less than the one that the administration recommends, Kranz says.
“That [option] appeals to me because it uses what we have and we could implement it the quickest. Our needs are urgent,” says Jeffrey Bourne, the 3rd District School Board representative. “I think now is the time for us to speak with a unified voice and, for lack of a better word, force a tough decision about what the priorities are for our city.”
Mayor Dwight Jones’ budget proposal earmarks $10 million for RPS if the school system can develop a right-sizing plan to address thousands of empty seats across the district. The mayor put that figure at 9,300.
During the presentation to the School Board, Kranz explained that the figure is derived by using the RPS class size maximum, which is 24 students for every teacher. The system prefers to operate at what is called the RPS functional measure, which is 22 students for every teacher. By that calculation, the system has about 5,700 empty seats, 1,300 of which are at specialty schools.
“Depending on what measure you use to compute the capacity, it’s easy to look at a number on a piece of paper and say ‘That’s it. Take it to the bank.’ You can’t do that. You have to look at it on a school-by-school, grade-by-grade and program-by-program basis … ,” Kranz says.
Earlier in the day, City Council heard a presentation regarding the mayor’s proposed capital improvement budget. Of the $80.1 million proposal he submitted last month, $13.1 million is for school maintenance. The sum represents a 162 percent increase from what the city budgeted in the previous fiscal year.
Additionally, $18.3 million is set aside for the construction of a STEM elementary school (focused on science, technology, engineering and math) at the site of the old Dove Court public housing complex, which was demolished in 2008.
Council was told the Dove school likely would be modeled after Broad Rock Elementary, one of the newest elementary schools on the South Side; it was built to hold 600 students and cost between $23 and $24 million. The school is nearing capacity, according to the RPS facilities task force report.
Councilwomen Reva Trammell and Ellen Robertson, who was the council representative on the RPS facilities task force, questioned why a school with a larger capacity couldn’t be built using the funds.
“The population is going to keep growing,” says Trammell, the 8th District City Council representative. “We need to build bigger schools.”
Projections show it would cost $30 million to build a 1,000-seat elementary school, Kranz says.
That the Dove school would be built north of the James wouldn’t necessarily ease any of the school system’s capacity issues south of the river, where seven of the 12 elementary schools are projected to exceed capacity in the next five years. Even if the school system is rezoned, busing students across the river would drive up operational costs and lengthen their school-day commutes, Kranz says.
Asked whether the funds proposed for the Dove school would be better spent elsewhere, he says, “[Dove school] fits the overall needs of the district, yes. But does it fit its immediate needs? No.”