Critical needs of RPS buildings dominate new school year

Now what are the mayor, superintendent, and school board going to do about it?

Students, teachers, and principals have known for years just how rundown Richmond Public Schools buildings are: mold, leaky roofs, and dicey HVACs are as common as homework and pop quizzes.

Three weeks ago, Richmond learned just how much years of neglect has cost: $35 million.

In an 11-page report by Tommy Kranz, assistant superintendent for operations at RPS, 135 critical facility needs (see sidebar) span nearly every school in the RPS system.1

From roof replacements at Armstrong High ($1.6 million), replacing steam boilers at Elkhardt Middle ($800,000), to clearing mold at Ginter Park and Swansboro elementary schools ($750,000 each), the sum total of RPS disrepair stunned Kranz, who only arrived in Richmond this summer and who has served public school systems throughout the country.

“He said it’s the worst he’s seen in his time,” said Dr. Dana Bedden, the superintendent of RPS since early this year, about Kranz’s assessment. Bedden echoes it. “This is some of the worst conditions I’ve seen in educational facilities.”

The sky-high list of costly repairs should’ve galvanized support across all levels of City government. But at a press conference last week, Mayor Dwight Jones minimized concerns, saying RPS should focus on “rightsizing”3 and academic accountability. His remarks made many question the Mayor’s priorities with RPS and question whether the key players that ultimately decide the fate of city schools will be able to work together.

“That’s our goal”

The first RPS superintendent to come from outside of Richmond in 17 years, Dr. Dana Bedden took over in January.

“My job is to try and find solutions” to the problems facing city schools, he said by phone last week. “My first concern is about our ability to have an education environment conducive to learning.”

To help him, he brought in Dr. Tommy Kranz and others. “Our new team has come from a lot of different places,” he said. “They came with the belief that they can help make [RPS] better. That’s our goal.”

He said the $35 million figure in Kranz’s report has been largely misinterpreted, “reported as us seeking the money.”

Instead, the 11-page report was a re-prioritization of existing critical need projects. “These are the most egregious and needed improvements,” Bedden said. The report merely called out those that will likely need the most attention soonest, even though all projects need to be addressed. “This situation didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “This is years of deferred maintenance” that began long before he and Mayor Jones arrived.

Bedden said initiative behind the report was a “combination of the [Facilities] Task Force that was commissioned by the [School] Board…but also, as a professional, Dr. Kranz doing his due diligence before the schools opened,” Bedden said.

He agrees with the Mayor about rightsizing city schools. “This district has to go through a rightsizing process,” Bedden said. But the urgent issues outlined in Kranz’s report also need addressing. “We have to develop a short-term and long-range plan to address these challenges.”

He said the biggest obstacle facing the city is the lack of trust, which is “one of the most destabilizing things” affecting RPS improvement. The Mayor, superintendent, and School Board have to trust each other to make any meaningful changes. “That will go a long way toward progress,” he said.

But Bedden said he has “no conflict” with the Mayor’s administration: “I’ve gotten nothing but support from them.” He says he meets regularly with the City’s chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall, and will “continue to communicate with my counterpart in the City.”

Although the challenges at RPS are some of the most difficult he’s faced in his career, Bedden believes brighter (less moldier) days are coming. “I wouldn’t come to work everyday if I didn’t believe it,” he said.

One boat

School Board member Kristen Larson (4th District) says the Kranz report underscores the realities of RPS facilities.

“This wasn’t an exercise in finger pointing,” Larson said by phone last week. “There’s just shock at what we have to deal with on a daily basis to keep our schools running.”

She said the Board acted last week to adopt the report’s list of critical needs. The re-prioritized list of issues will be managed on a “case-by-case basis,” meaning that as HVAC malfunctions, leaky roofs, and other critical issues come up, “our superintendent and his folks have the authority to move forward and take on the projects on that list,” she said.

Like Bedden, Larson and the Board would love to have the full $35 million to address all needs, not just the most dire. RPS will get $7 million as part of the Capital Improvement Program. “But a lot of that is already allocated,” Larson said.

City Council president Charles Samuels, speaking last week by phone, said the $10 million in the city budget that Council approved for a new baseball stadium–a project the Mayor pulled from Council consideration amid large public opposition to it–could go toward repair costs.

In addition to securing city funds, RPS and the Board are investigating additional funding options like special loans. “We see all this other development [around the city],” Larson said. “Let’s all make this decision that we are going to invest in our schools…and just get on board.”

“Good schools are good economic development,” she said.

Whereas partnership and trust between the major players affecting Richmond’s schools hasn’t been a hallmark in recent years, Larson thinks the tide is changing. That the zeal of a new superintendent flanked with a new team, and the 11-page report’s clarion call for change will get everyone (the Mayor, the City Council, and the School Board) in the same boat working together.

Hints of that occurred last week when Tommy Kranz led Larson, Councilman Jon Baliles (1st District), and Mayor Jones chief of staff, Grant Neely, on a tour of city schools.

“It would benefit all of us to see all city officials working together to come up with a plan,” Larson said. “We can all make a decision to start paddling in the same direction.


Photo by Jim

  1. Over 40 schools in total
  2. Ensuring schools are adequate sizes for the communities they support, a process that can lead to school closures, merges, or consolidations. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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