RICHMOND, Va. -- The cost of construction for three new Richmond school building is more than $30 million more than the initial cost estimates, according to numbers provided by city officials. While the projects already underway will not be impacted, Mayor Levar Stoney said the discrepancy shows that school board members need to make "tough choices" moving forward when considering new school construction.
An increase in the city meals tax beginning last year generated $150 million for new school construction. The Richmond School Board's five-year plan called for the construction of five new school buildings, and renovations of two more.
At least one of those projects, a new building for George Wythe High School, is on hold indefinitely given the new cost estimates, two elected officials told CBS 6 Thursday.
The original cost estimates for the projects made in 2017 totaled $110 million, per city officials:
- George Mason Elementary School: $25 million
- E.S.H. Greene Elementary School: $35 million
- New Middle School on Hull Street: $50 million
Following the completion of the procurement process, city officials said the actual cost is $140 million.
- George Mason Elementary School: $36 million
- E.S.H. Greene Elementary School: $42 million
- New Middle School on Hull Street: $62 million
City officials cited a significant increase in construction costs, an expanded plan of Greene Elementary, and required LEED Silver certification for all new school buildings as reasons for the procurement increases.
"It is now clear the initial estimates, provided in 2017, under-represented the true cost of construction. Both RPS and the city had concerns this might be the case, which is why both entities discussed engaging a third party to evaluate the costs of rebuilding and/or renovating all RPS schools," the administration wrote in a statement, adding that the school board balked on bringing in an outside group to evaluate citywide construction costs.
At an event Thursday morning, Stoney said his office always suspected the actual construction costs would be higher than the 2017 estimates, done by a previous school administration, and said the School Board will need to re-evaluate their future school construction plans if no new revenue is generated.
"Even with $150 million, you could not build five schools. We said that right out the gate," Stoney said.
The Mayor has proposed increasing the city's property tax and taxing cigarette sales to generate new money and pay for school needs. Multiple city council members and residents are vehemently opposed to increasing taxes. Stoney said School Board members who refuse to make take tough choices are being "disingenuous" about helping city's public school kids.
School Board member Jonathan Young (4th district) said he agrees with the Mayor that the initial cost estimates were low; however, he wrote a letter with three of his fellow school board members questioning whether the new construction costs were accurate.
"It is critical that we identify what is driving these excessive costs," the letter said. "Towards our shared goal to make the best use of taxpayer dollars and meeting the essential needs of our city's students, please advise if there are any measures that can be taken to bring the planned construction costs in line with standard fees."
Young said Chesterfield recently built Enon Elementary for about $31 million, which would be a similar project to the new Greene Elementary building ($35 million).
"The math right now doesn't seem to add up," Young said. "I think that we have an opportunity when we're building these three new schools to stretch every one of those dollars as far as possible."
Young said he the cost of construction for the three new buildings likely falls somewhere between the 2017 estimates and the Mayor's numbers. Those savings alone would generate millions of dollars for use elsewhere, Young said.
George Wythe 11th grader Kanizia George sees firsthand what happens in an aging school building. Wythe was built in 1960, and last renovated in the early 1980s, according to RPS's website.
"Nothing's like falling from the roof or anything," George said. "Maybe a couple of weeks ago there was a big old pile of water in the floor. I don't know where it came from. Of course, some will be immature about it, but you just walk around it and keep going."
George said it is disheartening to see school buildings elsewhere that look very different from her own, but she said she refuses to allow conditions to impact her learning. She wants to become an EMT because she "wants to help people."
Even though she will never walk the halls of a new school building, George said the clock is also ticking for students who will come after her at Wythe.
"In a couple more years, the school might look worse, and for it to be the same building, what you going to do then?" George asked.