Efforts to bring Richmond Public Schools up to speed on its compliance with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act may once again be moving toward the courtroom, though this time it may be the school district doing the suing.
Richmond Public Schools confirms that it is considering its legal options on improperly constructed wheelchair access ramps at two schools. The ramps were built as part of its 2006 court settlement to bring the school system into basic ADA compliance by 2013.
In a report issued April 15 by Valerie Jones, the district's ADA compliance coordinator overseeing a remediation effort that includes nearly all Richmond school facilities, she noted that "projects under review by our attorneys include Woodville ES (ramp) and Ginter Park ES (ramp)." Jones also wrote that these communications can be discussed only in closed session.
Richmond Public Schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby confirmed that information related to the ramps would remain privileged pending the legal review. She wrote, "the ramp projects at Ginter Park ES and Woodville ES are under legal review" but said that same legal counsel had advised no further comment on the matter.
In February, the school system announced that it had elected not to renew a contract with Fairfax-based McDonough Bolyard Peck Inc., a construction-management company that had been charged with overseeing the ADA projects.
Neither Cosby nor Jones' report indicated whether the legal review of the projects included McDonough Bolyard Peck or other contractors and architects involved in oversight or construction of the projects.
Last April, Cosby told Richmond magazine that McDonough Bolyard Peck's contract with the district required them "to ensure completed ADA projects meet the required ADA [Accessibility Guidelines] standards of 1994 or state building code specifications. They conduct a site visit after each completed ADA project and before final payments are rendered."
But some contractors cashed big checks even though their work fell far short of ADA compliance.
A review of some of those projects by Richmond magazine in April 2010 revealed problems with the Ginter Park ramp, along with several other ADA projects that are part of the settlement agreement.
Part of the reporting process was a review of hundreds of documents: invoices, blueprints, checks paid, contracts and internal communications between McDonough Bolyard Peck and Richmond Public Schools officials. This paperwork revealed evidence of cost overruns, payment for unnecessary work and inaccurate engineering blueprints.
Ginter Park School's problems first came to light during an on-site review by a Richmond magazine reporter and two independent experts in ADA construction and remediation. That ramp was improperly graded and lacked a proper landing in front of the entry door to allow users to enter buildings unassisted.
Despite these problems, contractors had billed the school system $41,746 for the work and an additional $6,752 for architectural design. An independent ADA construction expert estimated the work — if done properly — should have cost $12,000 to $15,000.
Construction on Woodville cost the district $31,899, with an additional $11,985 paid to the architect for the design. The architect failed to account for an existing pole that is part of the structure of the school's entrance. The contractor built the ramp despite the pole, making the ramp unnavigable for many of its intended users.
The construction firm of Langston Davis, currently at the center of a controversial plan being pushed by Mayor Dwight Jones to rebuild the Richmond City Jail, was responsible for the construction of the Woodville ramp now under review.
Vicki Beatty's son, Davis, was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Richmond Public Schools that led to the 2006 settlement. She's pleased that the district is considering its legal options in an effort to recoup money for projects that were not ADA compliant.
"If they do it wrong, why do they get paid and not have to reimburse the money they got paid?" Beatty asks. "In the private sector, if you go out and do something and contract with somebody to pave their driveway with asphalt and put a big hump in the middle of it, I'm not going to write you a check."
Beatty also would like to see the city reconsider its use of subcontractors and architects whose projects were noncompliant.
Beatty, who is part of court-mediated negotiations on the ADA settlement, declined to discuss whether the district's legal review of payments for faulty work had been a topic before the judge overseeing the settlement or whether projects other than the two ramps named by Jones were under review. She also declined to discuss whether McDonough Bolyard Peck or other companies or subcontractors were included in the district's legal review.
Between March 2008 and March 2010, when the projects examined in Richmond magazine's investigation were completed, MBP had billed RPS $706,504. The total paid out by Richmond Public Schools to the firm between March 2008 and the end of its contract exceeded $1 million. Various subcontractors and architects have billed the district for millions more.
Superintendent Yvonne Brandon also has confirmed that discovery of problems with some ramps prompted the district to explore its legal options.
A review of the Ginter Park ramp and access project, done by Richmond magazine on Sept. 5, revealed that changes made at that school had not corrected the initial problems uncovered in April 2010.
"We have known since May, and these lawyers are being paid $32,500 a month as a base retainer," says Carol A.O. Wolf, a former School Board member. "How long does it take to review this problem? When is City Council going to get fed up? If we judge [schools officials] by their work, this work shows nothing. They're still ramps to nowhere."
Richmond Public Schools did not respond by press time to an inquiry asking if other ramps were out of compliance with ADA or if any other projects for which the district already had paid contractors were part of the legal review.