RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Local residents from throughout Central Virginia gathered in a march Saturday morning to call for additional state funding to support school infrastructure investments, particularly in the commonwealth’s rural and urban areas.
Approximately 100 individuals were in attendance, with the Fund Safe Schools March beginning at the remains of the scorched William Fox Elementary School and traveling to Monroe Park.
“This is our wake-up call,” event co-organizer and Fox parent Becca DuVal said. “We are here to make sure that everybody understands the conditions of our schools today and the opportunity that we have to invest in them and ask our lawmakers to invest in them.”
DuVal said that she was devastated when she learned what happened to Fox earlier this month. She has two children who attended the 110-year-old school until it burnt down on Feb. 11.
“The unfortunate reality, as you can see behind me,” she said, motioning to the school, “is that time runs out for these buildings. Aging schools is a problem that gets worse every year.”
A 2021 school building inventory report from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) noted that more than half of the school buildings in the commonwealth have stood for more than 50 years. Of the more than 2,000 buildings accounted for, 34 of them have stood for at least a century, with 10 of those school buildings in the City of Richmond.
“A school like Fox, if it catches fire, it’s destined to burn because it has no sprinkler system,” DuVal said.
A spokesperson for the Richmond Fire Department (RFD) previously confirmed to 8News at the historic building had not been retrofitted for sprinklers because of its age.
Swansboro Elementary and Open High were built in 1911, the same year as Fox.
A spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools (RPS) also confirmed to 8News that Fox is not the only building in the division that has not been retrofitted for sprinklers.
“My kids, right now, happen to not have a place to go. It’s my school today,” DuVal said. “It could be any other school tomorrow, and we’ve got to seize this moment now, harness this energy now and really fix up our schools across the state, and give our friends in rural and urban areas of the state an opportunity to raise money to do that.”
The 2021 VDOE school building inventory estimated that the total replacement cost for the commonwealth’s school buildings over the age of 50 would be $24,790,835,500.
“Our public schools are in need of critical repairs and replacements,” event co-organizer Rev. Josh Blakely said. “All across our commonwealth, we are finding that schools are just in great disrepair. We’ve got ceilings falling in, we’ve got leaks, we’ve got water in the hallways, buckets, and it’s just abysmal conditions, and it’s time that we, as a state, put our money toward the youngest among us.”
Rev. Blakely traveled to Richmond from Prince Edward County for the march. He said that he has a child in school there, where the fight for equal education has been ongoing for decades.
“Barbara Johns, who started the student walk-out that led to part of the Brown v. Board of Education case, that all came out of Prince Edward County,” he said. “We have this long history of fighting for our education, and we’re doing that again now because are schools are just in massive disrepair.”
Virginia Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) was also in attendance on Saturday. In addition to pushing for school construction bills in the state legislature, she is a Fox parent.
“Our kids are our future, and how well we educate them determines how strong our communities are, how strong our democracy is,” she said. “They can’t learn in buildings that are falling apart. So we need all hands on deck to make sure that we are fully funding their education.”
On Feb. 14, for example, the Senate passed a fifth school construction bill to address renovation, construction and maintenance needs.
But individuals at the Fund Safe Schools March were not only focused on the commonwealth’s aging buildings. There were also many calling for construction of the new George Wythe High School. The school was built in 1951, but community members, parents and teachers alike have long shared their concern about the state of the building.
“The school needs help. Not saying that it’s burning, but it’s burning, inside and out,” Wythe alumna and current parent Tisha Erby said. “We in this together. It’s not about Wythe, it’s not about Fox. It’s a lot of other schools that need help, too, and I’m just here to spread the love and spread the word that — fund our schools.”