Complete and Total Incompetence & Negligence

Fox Elementary School after the fire. Photo credit: WTVR

by Jon Baliles

There can be no more fitting title for this post than this jaw-dropping, migraine-inducing story from Tyler Lane at CBS6 about the repeated warning signs about fire safety that were not only missed — but flat out ignored — by Richmond Public Schools (RPS) officials in 2020 and 2021, which culminated in the destruction by fire of Fox Elementary School and the school bus maintenance facility a few months later.

If it’s not criminal to so blatantly put thousands of kids’ lives at risk, it certainly should be a fireable offense. But what happened to the Director of Facilities who ignored all the warnings and repeated pleas by Fire officials to do something —anything — about the clear and present dangers to our schools and the kids inside them? RPS gave him a $30,000 raise?

Before the fire that destroyed Fox Elementary School in February 2022, a Richmond Fire Department captain pleaded with leaders of RPS that Fox was in violation of eight fire codes (including a faulty alarm panel) since August of 2021 and warned them “of ‘extreme neglect’ to fire safety and accused the district of a “complete lack of effort” ensuring schools were safe for occupancy.” Those violations were supposedly fixed but no re-inspection ever took place.
Lane obtained numerous emails that detailed multiple failures on multiple fronts; many of them were between Deputy Fire Marshal William Spindle and RPS Director of Facilities Bobby Hathaway.

The Fire Marshall notified RPS of 35 schools with violations in 2020.  None of them had been made compliant by March 2021. RPS has 40 schools and five preschool centers — so 78% of their buildings had fire code violations. You would think after COVID hit would be the perfect time to allow fire personnel into empty schools to do inspections, but they were not done. Marshall Spindle contacted Superintendent Kamras and other higher-ups to remedy the problem, to no avail.

The usual excuses are offered as to why the inspections didn’t take place: lack of staff, COVID, upgrading HVAC, etc. You know, all the things that are more important than fire prevention in dozens of buildings that hold hundreds of children every day.

Marshall Spindle told school officials “in July 2021 that he noticed a “common theme” of schools missing fire inspection alarm reports and sprinkler inspection reports.”

But, even though an August 2021 inspection at Fox Elementary showed violations, RFD never reinspected to see if they were corrected, also citing personnel shortages.

The most damning piece of the article described Spindle’s attempts to go to Hathaway’s boss, Chief of Staff Michelle Hudacsko, to get some action.
“Spindle could not get into the buildings for reinspections, because RPS Facilities Director Bobby Hathaway did not respond to Spindle’s multiple attempts in December to check on the violations that were documented in the fall.

On January 6, 2022, Spindle sent an email to Hudacsko with the subject line, “ongoing roadblock.”

He told Hudacsko that Hathaway would refuse his phone calls, hang up on him, and ignore text messages as Spindle tried to ensure “life-saving measures were in place for students and staff.”

“The latest timeline of events has our office in a challenging position as we are seemingly being denied access to reinspect the schools after documenting over 200 violations in RPS,” Spindle wrote. “Is there anyone working for Richmond Public Schools who can help us? Although we are being met with ongoing roadblocks to do what is required, this reflects poorly on our office.”

Hudackso replied 11 days later, on January 17, 2022, thanking Spindle for his patience and asking if this was an “urgent issue.”

Spindle responded the same day that it wasn’t urgent for Hudacsko but again asked for a contact who is “currently in charge of facilities as outlined by the Department of Education.”

He added, “Mr. Hathaway has placed himself in a position of extreme neglect when it comes to the Richmond Fire Department. The communication has been onesided and our offices are in need of someone that can help us from RPS.”

You know the rest. Fox burned to ashes in February because of a faulty alarm panel that was never fixed. To add to the migraine, the insurance company is indicating the amount that RPS will receive to rebuild it is $10 million less than what RPS said they would get to complete a rebuild.

“The VACORP representative said RPS can accept their estimates or they can send documentation to support a higher reimbursement. He said they have not received any information from RPS requesting a higher reimbursement yet.”

Let’s hope RPS actually gets to work on submitting this paperwork instead of ignoring it like they did the fire code violations.

On top of that, reporter Melissa Hipolit discovered that Facilities Director Hathaway received a $30,000 raise at some point between August 2021 and August 2022, and is now pulling $149,314 annually. The raise was approved unanimously by the School Board based on Kamras’ recommendation. Hathaway is now the highest paid school facilities director in the region.

Hipolit quotes retired Superintendent Dr. Charles Maranzano, former superintendent of Dinwiddie Public Schools, who said, “An increase in pay of unusual proportions for poor performance raises the issue of corruption across all levels of the administration in my opinion. Why would any governmental organization reward catastrophic performance among its management team? The taxpayers deserve a public explanation to this absurdity.”

Read the whole report by Lane, which goes through the most relevant FOIA emails as well as the excuses, and where he has a sit down interview with both the Superintendent and the Fire Chief who say they are meeting regularly and everything is now corrected and hunky dory.

But take an Excedrin, first.

Jon Baliles is a former City of Richmond councilman. This column is republished with permission from RVA 5X5.