The most politically contentious issue in the City of Richmond these days is what to do about the public school system’s shamefully decrepit school buildings, some of which, if they were privately owned tenement houses, would provide grounds for throwing the book at the landlord. Mayor Levar Stoney has proposed hiking the meal’s tax by 1.5% to support debt payments on $150 million in bonds. The proceeds would help pay for a $225 million spending plan that includes constructing five new school buildings and renovating two.
Now, thanks to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, we find out that the $63 million Huguenot High School, touted as the “Taj Mahal of high schools” when it opened in 2015, cannot use its gymnasium because water damage has rendered the gym floor unusable. After extensive drilling and testing of the structure beneath the floor, city officials have not yet determined the source of the water. With an unusable gym, sports teams are playing at other schools and physical education classes are being held in basement hallways. Fixing this problem will prove far more difficult than the patching of earlier failures such as an elevator that got stuck and an air conditioner that failed.
It is too early to say if the difficulties at Huguenot High School are just happenstance — hey, stuff like happens all the time, and you rely upon warranties and insurance to fix it — or if it is indicative of an underlying management failure. Construction of the high school was outsourced to AECOM, a large and reputable engineering firm — so it’s not as if the flaws can be blamed on some incompetent buddy of the former mayor. On the other hand, is it possible that that there was a fundamental flaw in the design and engineering of the gymnasium foundation. And whose fault would that be?
While it may be tempting to dismiss the water-logged gym floor as a one-off, Richmond Public Schools need to address more systemic issues. The school division has been under-funding maintenance for years, with the result that buildings have a shorter life span than they should. The previous mayor, Dwight Jones, had a penchant for building showcase schools that provided great ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the expense of routine, unglamorous expenditures that would extend the life of existing buildings. Then there’s the issue of the School Board’s unwillingness to consolidate schools to reflect the smaller pupil population. Operating more buildings than necessary runs up maintenance costs.
Raising taxes is a short-term solution to a long-festering problem. If I were a Richmond taxpayer — and I was for many years before I moved to Henrico County — I would demand a wholesale restructuring of the school system’s building and operations plan before agreeing to a tax increase. Otherwise, the city offers no assurance that it won’t be back in another ten years pleading poverty and begging for yet more money.