Amateur Hour at Richmond School Board

Big news this weekend in Richmond: Superintendent Dana Bedden will be leaving Richmond Public Schools as of June 30, with two years left on his contract. Nobody really knows why, except Bedden himself and the nine members of the School Board. And they are not talking.

According to WTVR-6 News, Board Chair Dawn Page offered the usual "new direction" boilerplate language with little details. So there’s little evidence of any kind of scandal or impropriety. But the timing is still odd, and the way the decision was made and announced is odder still.

The decision to oust Bedden was apparently reached in an emergency meeting Friday evening. According to the meeting minutes, one member, Scott Barlow, even had to participate by phone from Barcelona, a break with precedent that required a vote from the Board beforehand. Why the urgency?

The decision becomes more mysterious in light of the launch of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s education “compact” earlier this year. Stoney and his team want to see greater collaboration between city administration and the school system, and they are planning a series of working groups to help reduce tension over funding and, hopefully, improve student outcomes.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how this move could be interpreted (perhaps cynically) as an attempt by the Mayor to gain greater control over city schools, usurping a democratically elected School Board. The ouster of Bedden, with no clear explanation, let’s people speculate still further. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board wondered darkly, "Did the board face pressure from other power centers – such as the mayor’s office, the business community, or the teachers' guild?")

I actually do NOT think power consolidation is Stoney's goal: all evidence suggests he has a much more collaborative vision. But Bedden's departure at least puts tremendous pressure on the Compact, and the Mayor, to succeed. Without clear leadership from a permanent superintendent, getting every stakeholder in the city on the same page for education is an even greater challenge.

Instead, what we’re seeing today is the downside of a change election. Last fall’s voting brought new faces to eight of the nine School Board seats. The one holdover, former Chair Jeff Bourne, departed for the House of Delegates in February. The result is an entirely new School Board, all of whom seem like neophytes at running a large bureaucracy and, significantly, managing the politics that results. I warned in December that the lack of continuity and experience on the Board would make it hard for them to meet the tough challenges they face; the announcement this weekend might justify such warnings.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: One astute Twitter follower reminded me that Current Board Chair Dawn Page was previously on the board in 2009-12, eventually serving as Chair.]

On one level, the ouster of Bedden is not all that surprising; his predecessor was also forced out by a new board, although she had gotten five years on the job to be evaluated, not just three. Many Board members had criticized Bedden during their campaigns and at least one, Jonathan Young, had promised to try to remove him.

Instead, what makes Bedden's removal troubling is how the ouster occurred: in a rush, with two years left on his contract, and little explanation or clarity to assuage the fears of taxpayers, teachers and, most importantly, families with students in public schools. (Unsurprisingly, they’re not happy.)

This is Amateur Hour, folks, and the stakes could not be greater. 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.

The worry should not be that the Board didn’t share Bedden's vision. Instead, the worry is that they don’t have a vision at all. Richmonders need to see evidence of their plan for the future, and soon. Otherwise we’ll all be looking forward to when the next "new" board comes along.