- Scott Elmquist
- Art Burton, founder and director of Kinfolk Community, speaks to the Richmond School Board at a meeting about George Mason Elementary School on Monday night.
Falling ceiling tiles, floods, disgusting bathrooms, rodent feces, gas fumes and uncomfortable temperatures. Those are the conditions at George Mason Elementary School, several teachers said at a recent community meeting.
But interim Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Kranz countered that the school is safe and can be fixed to make it fine for students in the coming year.
A two-and-a-half hour meeting Monday night painted two pictures of the elementary school’s conditions, with the school administration expressing a preference for keeping children in the building.
About 200 people gathered at George Mason’s auditorium for the meeting, and about 40 of them expressed varying levels of dissatisfaction with the School Board and the administration. Most speakers were in favor of a brand new school but seemed to want the students removed from George Mason in the meantime.
Kranz said the administration also wants to build a new school on the lot adjacent to the current one — a project that would cost between $22 million and $35 million and could begin within 24 months.
“This building leaks like a sieve,” Kranz said. But he was adamant that the school, the oldest section of which was erected in 1922, was safe, that environmental quality experts had tested the building for natural gas, mold and other dangers and found no problems.
“I view all 24,000 students [in Richmond’s public school system] as if they’re my own,” he said. “If I wouldn’t send my grandchildren into a building, I’m sure not going to send anyone else’s child.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Interim Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Kranz presents the administration's preference for an option that keeps students in George Mason Elementary School for the coming year.
The meeting was the result of a tour of George Mason by two School Board members two weeks ago. The members, Liz Doerr and Cindy Menz-Erb, drafted a set of eight options to remove the 450 students from the school before the Sept. 5 start of the new year.
Kranz made a presentation on some of those options, with price tags ranging from $100,000 to $10 million, noting problems with each one:
- Moving George Mason to nearby Franklin Military Academy and academy kids to Community High School would “impact the core curriculum and core mission of those schools.”
- Distributing Mason students throughout other elementary schools was “not good for students and education.
- Moving Franklin students to Henderson Middle School would require $10 million and 18 months of construction.
“It would be a challenge,” he said.
Kranz proposed limited repairs to the building, at a cost of $105,000. Those would ensure the smell of natural gas is not near the building, address known mechanical repairs, pay for a deep cleaning and a few other touch ups. The administration would continue to test the building for airborne contaminates, as it did in November and July, on a monthly basis and post results to the district’s Web page.
Another $6 million would be needed to replace all windows and doors, move the boilers, install a central air conditioning unit and renovate the bathrooms.
Kranz lamented the funding needs of the schools, saying there had been shortfalls of millions of dollars per year on facilities maintenance for some time.
Several teachers were the first to comment, citing extreme hot and cold conditions, leaking bathrooms, falling tiles and infestations of bugs and rodents in their classrooms. A teacher said she regularly has to rescue children trapped in bathrooms, due to the failure of old doorknobs.
“There’s a difference between being safe and being an appropriate space for students to learn,” said teacher Megan Jackson of the building.
Teacher Derrick Bates spoke about the extensive training Mason staff receives on teaching children who come to the school with traumatic experiences. But he questioned the logic of not addressing the trauma of the building’s conditions.
“What’s the difference?” Bates said. “If you’re going to train us on trauma, let’s reduce the trauma, not only from the neighborhoods, but also from the schools.”
Some speakers expressed sympathy for the board’s position on an issue that predated their elections — all were elected last year — and noted that their financial position was dependent on City Council and state resources.
“I’m still pretty appalled about what happened a few years ago with the Redskins training facility. That seemed like a misappropriation of funding,” said Murray Withrow, the father of two Mason students. “We could have a new George Mason Elementary School if that money had been used for a new building, and I’m not aware of any great revenue that was generated by that endeavor.”
The city granted the Economic Development Authority $10 million to build the Redskins facility in 2012, and the city contributes $500,000 a year to defray the team’s cost to practice in Richmond.
Another speaker cited the large severance packages of recently departed city employees as an example of misspent funds.
- Scott Elmquist
- The crowd reacts to a commenter at George Mason Elementary School's auditorium.
In addition to current parents and teachers, many parents of future Mason students and local schools advocates spoke.
“I really find this to be an unbelievable, dishonest conversation,” said Art Burton, founder and director of the nonprofit Kinfolk Community that works in local public housing. “[The Richmond Public Schools are] a perfect school system because it was designed to give children of color an inferior education and put them in inferior buildings and teach them as little as possible, and that’s exactly what we do everyday.”
Burton questioned the funding priorities of the School Board and the city, when the the leader of the superintendent search committee, Dominion executive Tom Farrell, had come out in favor of a $130 million new Coliseum.
“We’re not lacking in money, y’all, we’re lacking in moral commitment,” said former City Councilor Marty Jewell. “You don’t do this to children and expect to be respected.”
After the speakers, School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page assured the crowd that it takes the situation seriously and defended the superintendent search committee.
The board will deliberate the options and vote on George Mason’s future at its Aug. 7 meeting.