Perilous Times for Richmond Public Schools

The City of Richmond’s public schools are at a crisis point. Only 17 of the school division’s 44 schools were fully accredited last year, with 16 denied. The schools are under-enrolled relative to capacity, suggesting contentious school closures and rezoning are on the horizon. The school system's facilities, under-funded for decades by the city, are crumbling and require hundreds of millions of dollars of repairs and renovation.

Last fall's elections brought change in city government -- a new Mayor, many new City Council members, and an entirely new School Board –--driven in large part by education concerns. Many Richmonders see the dysfunctional school system as the biggest obstacle to the city realizing the full potential of its recent Renaissance.

But reform efforts have been complicated by the sheer complexity of the system, with overlapping initiatives and solutions coming to a head all at the same time. The next few months could determine the future of Richmond Public Schools, as well as the city as a whole; and it's not clear who has a handle on all the moving parts.

There are three especially important processes going on right now, each of which holds much promise and opportunity for the school system, but also plenty of danger:

  1. #SuperSearch. A newly-elected and inexperienced School Board, with not a single holdover from the previous Board, decided in April to fire Superintendent Dana Bedden after only three years on the job. It’s understandable that a new Board might want to work with their own person. But with everything else going on in the school reform effort, it was pretty tough timing; many thought Bedden deserved more time to implement his reforms. No matter what, the firing will make it harder to find Bedden’s successor: who wants to work for a Board with such a quick trigger?
  2. Education Compact. At the same time, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has proposed an Education Compact, a grand plan for city government and schools to work together on funding and other issues. After activists, worried that the framework was a cover for privatization, called for a delay, Stoney and his advisor, University of Richmond professor Thad Williamson, scaled back the plans to just a loose framework for cooperation. Still, questions remain about how the new Superintendent will work within the Compact.
  3. State Oversight. Finally, the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) is working out a plan of oversight of the city schools that resulted from a review requested by Bedden. Local blogger/gadfly John Butcher has complained about this plan, noting that it lacks enforcement and ignores test scores. But the resulting Memorandum of Understanding suggests the state will be regularly meeting with Board Chair Dawn Page and the eventual Superintendent, with certain powers like prior review over some budget spending.

The result of all this? Chaos may be too strong a word -- it’s not cats and dogs living together -- but all of these moving parts make reform a lot harder to achieve.

There are lots of players here too. A new Superintendent will soon be asked to step into a web of state-local intergovernmental relations. Activist groups, including Richmond Forward, Support RPS, Richmond Teachers for Social Justice, and Stay RVA seem to be proliferating, and all want input. The Mayor wants to move forward on solutions, and the City Council -- with two recent School Board members, Kristen Larson and Kim Gray, joining this year -- may be guarded on city finances, but seem willing to listen.

Still, hovering over it all: the inexperience of the School Board. They fired Bedden under mysterious circumstances and refused to talk about why. They released a timeline for the Superintendent search in June that no longer makes sense. They held a public meeting about the search this week that was billed as a public forum, but then did not allow any input at the meeting. They are currently negotiating with VBOE but don’t seem to be pushing for any changes to the oversight plan that could benefit the city, even though similar plans for other cities have been much less restrictive. Rumors abound that some neophytes on the Board are deferring to supposedly more experienced members, but it’s not clear that anyone knows what they’re doing. This could be the Achilles heel that makes the whole reform effort fall apart.

To avoid the worst, what needs to happen? A few steps seem fairly obvious:

  • The Board should push for changes to the VBOE’s plan and memorandum governing state-city oversight. They should not hamstring the new superintendent with burdensome state requirements – or make it harder to land a good candidate in the first place.
  • The City should continue to move forward with the Education Compact. Not much will get done until the new Superintendent is on board, but at least the structures can be set up so that communication channels are well established by then. The Mayor can help by making the compact more inclusive, ensuring that more "have-nots" like teachers, parents, and local citizens have real input.
  • In the meantime, the Board can work through the Compact and with City Council to develop a funding plan for the school’s immediate facilities crisis.

The hopeful tone of last fall's city elections are already tempered by concerns over all of the developments described above. A lot rides on a successful Superintendent search, but that single person can’t be expected to act as the sole savior of the city's public schools. We’ll also need the Board to overcome its inexperience and meet these challenges head on. It is no exaggeration to say that whether they do or not will determine Richmond’s future.

H/t to Richmond Forward’s Garet Prior and RVA Dirt’s Jessee Perry.