Ryan, whose place on the November ballot was only recently certified after a court battle with the city registrar’s office, issued his challenge on Tuesday, in an email statement sent via his attorney, Paul Goldman, just hours before a candidate forum held by the Richmond Crusade for Voters.
The statement called on the mayor to step in and close the school, which critics say poses a real hazard due to previously detected high levels of explosive methane gas while also serving as a symbol of continued environmental discrimination against poor urban black students.
"When thousands of city residents raise issues such as those concerning the re-opening of the Norrell Elementary School, I believe it is incumbent upon a candidate for mayor to say where he or she stands," the statement read. "With all due respect to the School Administration and the School Board, their decision on Norrell should not stop a Mayor from doing what is right. Let's be honest: We would not build an elementary school today near, much less on, a landfill.”
Appearing at the Crusade meeting, Ryan restated his challenge to Jones.
Jones, who was at the Crusade forum but left early, contrary to reports by some local media outlets that he did not attend, was unwilling to concede to Ryan’s demand that the school close, though he was critical of the process administrators and the Richmond School Board used in reopening the school. He did not speak publicly at the Crusade meeting but spoke with Richmond magazine.
“We do have some issue with how it was handled,” Jones said as he and his chief policy advisor, David Hicks, left the meeting held at 5th Street Baptist Church not far from Norrell Elementary.
“We found out about [the school’s reopening] when everyone else found out about it,” said Jones, noting that for the time being, his administration is relying on the word of RPS officials that Norrell is safe for daily use. “We have since found out the building is environmentally safe — is what we’re being told.”
RPS officials have said they consulted with city administration officials before opening the school, and they have cited consultation with Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Beschler, who oversees the city’s public works department.
While Jones seemingly disavowed knowledge of any consultation between schools officials and his staff, he did express cautious concern that he said was worthy of taking a second look.
“My concern is the environmental-safety issue and whether the children are safe,” Jones said. “As late as today, we were looking at some information related to [the school’s safety].”
But while Ryan, along with a reconstituted iteration of the same Parents for Life group that organized more than a decade ago to close Norrell, framed the issue along socioeconomic and racial lines, Jones was not prepared to frame the school’s reopening in that hyper-charged context.
“We know about the issues and the history — we’re not strangers to that,” he said, noting that he’d previously lived not far from the school and the North Side neighborhood of Battery Park where it’s located.
City schools officials have maintained that the school is safe in the wake of their July decision to reopen Norrell as a pre-kindergarten location with the capacity to house more than 250 children. But Richmond magazine first reported on concerns about that plan from a group, Parents for Life, that started a campaign to close the school in 2001. Norrell finally closed in 2006 after Tropical Storm Ernesto inundated the area around the school with raw sewage.
Norrell Elementary, which was built in the late 1950s and opened amid the city’s tumultuous desegregation efforts, was initially a black elementary school. Built overlapping a closed section of a then-still-in-use city dump, the school immediately ran into environmental issues related to dangerous levels of methane gas that were found to build up in certain areas of the school. Efforts in the 1970s to make the school safe — instigated by a city fire marshal’s forced closure of the school — were largely successful, but the school continued to receive complaints from parents and teachers over alleged health issues.
The dump was officially closed in 1979, according to a 2007 FEMA report. That same report, released as part of its issuance of disaster-relief funds to the city to pay for Ernesto cleanup, found potentially explosive levels of methane still emanating from the dump site.
A petition to close the school that has gained national as well as local traction on Change.org had reached more than 22,000 signatures as of noon today. Among the signers was a Richmonder identifying himself as "KING KHALFANI." King Salim Khalfani is executive director of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP.
"I was a participant in the struggle to close Whitcomb and Norrell earlier," Khalfani wrote. "It is unconscionable that 3-4 years young children are being sent there. Take no chances with our children!"