Tough Times Ahead for New RVA School Board

This week Dana Bedden, the Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools (RPS), publicly presented his budget request for next year. Technically, the request is issued to the School Board as a “statement of needs.” The obvious need: more money, especially $5M for increased teacher salaries.

But the key question for Richmond Public Schools may not be how much money they can squeeze out of the city. Instead, it’s the issue of experience: Bedden will be working with an almost entirely new School Board next year. In November's elections, all but one incumbent (Board Chair Jeff Bourne) either stepped down, moved up, or was voted out.

In some respects, this could be good news for the Board, which has seen its share of drama over the past few years: spats among members, costly out-of-town conferences, and inappropriate interference with school officials, to name just a few incidents. One outgoing member, Tichi Pinkney Eppes, was fined last year for illegally passing a stopped school bus. Last month her colleague, Mamie Taylor, had her election recount request thrown out by a judge when it was revealed that she couldn’t do simple math. So maybe some change is needed.

But this past November brought sweeping change throughout city government, with a new Mayor and half a new City Council to go along with the revamped board. This should certainly provide greater opportunity for dialogue between the Board and the rest of the city's leaders. The incoming Mayor, Levar Stoney, made reforming city schools a centerpiece of his campaign, and has continually signaled his willingness to create a more transparent administration than his predecessor, Dwight Jones. It would not be hard to surpass the infamously aloof Jones, who essentially ignored the Board during his tenure (for example not even sending a representative to a joint Board-Council meeting last year).

The schools also should be helped in this regard by two of the new City Council members; Kristen Larson and Kimberly Gray both jumped to Council from the Board seats of their respective districts. Their tenures on the Board were generally well-regarded, and their recent memories of the Board’s frustrations with both Council and city administrators should go a long way towards easing dialogue among the different players.

Still, the promotions of Larson and Gray, along with the other departures, leave a gaping hole at RPS in terms of leadership and experience. How long will it take the eight rookie Board members to get a handle on their jobs? How quickly will they be able to master the minutiae of school finances and policies, as well as support and evaluate the superintendent’s work managing the schools?

All eyes are on the one holdover from the previous Board, Chairman Bourne. His strong support for Bedden should quiet the superintendent’s critics on the Board -- like incoming 4th district Board representative Jonathan Young, who called for Bedden’s removal on the campaign trail – at least in the short term. And while he has his critics, Bourne at least knows the ropes and can help ease the rest of the board into their roles.

But that's only if he sticks around. Bourne ruled out a run for Mayor this past year, but there’s been speculation that he’s next in line for a seat in the state House of Delegates. If, as expected, Jennifer McClellan wins the special election for Don McEachin’s former State Senate seat next month, then her current Delegate spot will be up for grabs. Bourne, who worked for the former Mayor, still retains significant support among the city's Democratic power brokers, and would certainly earn strong consideration for the state seat - if he wants it.

This would be a particularly tough time for a rudderless Board. Bedden has already lost the good will of his honeymoon phase, and now has to face tough criticism as he implements an Academic Improvement Plan. He and the Board have to find a way to fund the replacement of fading facilities, deal with declining test scores, and continue to overhaul a dysfunctional administrative culture.

The school system’s Community Perspectives Survey, released just this week, asks for input from community members and neighbors. The survey presents some pretty pointed questions, including this one:

One way to reduce our operating costs is to reconfigure our schools. Reconfiguring schools means rebalancing school populations to address enrollment needs. For example, some schools may be below capacity, while others are at or near capacity. If RPS reconfigured its schools, the district could potentially decrease its operating costs. How much do you support this approach?

RPS faces some hard choices over the next few years, but maybe the hardest will be this “reconfiguring”: i.e., closing schools. Which schools are closed, and from which city districts, will be a huge political fight, one that will certainly test these rookie Board members.

If I were an incoming Board member, I’d be lobbying Bourne to stay, no matter his faults. With the almost-certain tough times ahead, this new Board is going to need all the help it can get.