Richmond Public Schools' Big Gamble
The School Board in the City of Richmond has had a busy year. They hurriedly fired their Superintendent in February. They’re working with the Mayor through his Education Compact, and dealing with state oversight; plus they’ve just been granted the gift – or burden – of a popular referendum calling for greater emphasis on public school funding in the city.
A board of mostly political neophytes, they have already had to deal with the departures of three members: Jeff Bourne (to the House of Delegates); Cindy Menz-Erb (Bourne’s appointed replacement, herself replaced by Kenya Gibson in a recent special election); and Nadine Marsh Carter, who resigned following her husband’s untimely death. (The school system seems to be having a tough time keeping up with the changes – Menz-Erb and Marsh Carter are both still featured on the Board’s website.)
That’s a lot of moving parts at a key time for Richmond Public Schools (RPS), and the city as a whole. But probably the most important decision the Board made this year was the recent hire of a new superintendent. As you probably have heard by now, they chose Jason Kamras, a DC schools administrator and former National Teacher of the Year.
Kamras is a gamble. He’s connected to Michelle Rhee, the controversial DC schools head who hired Kamras before she was eventually forced out. Kamras helped develop a quantitative teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, that some see as emphasizing the wrong things. (Although recent data is more positive, the evaluation system has undergone a number of changes, so it’s hard to get a handle on how it has worked.) He may have some trouble winning over skeptical teachers, for one.
No matter what, Kamras faces the unenviable task of reforming a dysfunctional RPS bureaucracy. Turning an oil tanker takes time, and this Board has already shown it lacks patience. If he's looking for a model to emulate, though, Kamras might look down the hall at the Mayor’s office.
Levar Stoney has had a much better year than the School Board has. The Mayor just released a report noting progress on reforming city administration. His administration earlier this year released an update to the city’s master plan, is currently considering proposals for ambitious downtown development, and just this month started to end the nightmare formerly known as the city permitting process. Also: lots and lots of potholes filled.
Stoney hasn’t ended all of the city’s problems overnight. But he’s making real progress, particularly in reforming the ossified city bureaucracy, through systematic review and dedication to change. RVA residents have the right to feel hopeful about what he might accomplish in the next few years.
The catch? No matter what Stoney does to reform the city administration, the city’s future rests with Kamras, the School Board, and the city schools. You cannot maintain a vibrant city without a functioning school system, especially when the consequences of the dysfunction fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable among us. As I wrote back in April,
The ailing school system is probably the biggest challenge to the city’s renaissance, beyond its criminally high levels of concentrated poverty. (Of course, both of these challenges are connected.) The city needs a School Board, and a tenured Superintendent, that has a shared vision on how to meet this challenge.
Superintending a citywide school system is a tough job. Any schools head must answer to School Board members who might be inexperienced and subject to pressure from various constituent groups. Elections are great for democratic input, but can also disrupt support for particular administrators – as Kamras' predecessor, Dana Bedden, found out earlier this year.
Kamras has his work cut out for him, and the stakes could not be higher. We’ll find out what he wants to do in the new year. But he could do worse than following Stoney’s lead.