“Stop with the Drama”

Richmond School Board in happier days. They weren’t smiling last week.

by Jon Baliles

It’s hard to try and figure out where to begin to explain the special School Board meeting held earlier this week in the wake of the news that Richmond Public Schools’ SOL scores dropped dramatically. The state Department of Education released every district’s scores and in the wake of the pandemic, Richmond did not fare well, to put it mildly.

In fact, it is downright troubling and makes you wonder many things: will we recover? How long will it take? Is Jason Kamras the Superintendent to lead us out of this? Can the School Board turn the ship around? I even heard from two people who mentioned the idea of going back to appointing our school board – remember the Gang of 26 letter and subsequent kerfuffle? Talk about a can of worms for another day.

So, on the heels of the bad news and scores, a special School Board meeting was called for Tuesday, on just a few days’ notice, with no agenda; but rumors quickly swirled about the Board firing the Superintendent. Things moved quickly from bad to worse.

Monday you had the Mayor tweeting his way into the debate, saying that firing Kamras would be catastrophic for the schools. Parents got upset that such talk was even being considered just a week before the school year kicks off. Teachers made it known they were upset with the curriculum they are told to teach and that it doesn’t help kids, and all the speculation was about if and when the hammer would fall.

And, not unexpectedly, the meeting was a mess from the outset. Blame was fired in all directions: Kamras blamed the scores on the pandemic; some School Board members blamed Kamras for the scores; speakers/parents blamed some School Board members and told them to resign; some School Board members blamed each other for not talking to one another and letting each other know what the meeting was even about; one School Board member blamed the SOLs themselves; one School Board member blamed Kamras for failing in areas like fire inspections of schools and losing 20,000 laptops; Kamras blamed procedure. You get the point — it was nothing but finger-pointing and blame-hurling galore.

Then the procedural games started, which put on full display an embarrassment to the very notion of good government. The faction of the School Board that called the special meeting and is aiming for Kamras tried to introduce legislative/board action to overhaul the entire school district’s curriculum in 68 days. That is a tall order in and of itself, but they introduced a motion that was to be voted on the same night, with no notice, no introduction; little, if any, discussion; and no public notice that would allow for little, if any, public comment.

That is just flat-out bad (and embarrassing) government.

If you can make the case for your proposal, regardless of the issue, put it on the agenda and let the public and the rest of the Board know what’s coming. State your goals, build your case, listen to the public, gather input, and make your argument. If you are persuasive, you win. If not, you try again.

Putting all of that aside, the astonishing thing I noticed was that no one had the temerity to say, “You know what, we are all to blame here. Every one of us. The School Board, the Superintendent, the Mayor, the Council, — all of us. It has been a collective failure and we have to do better. We will commit ourselves to righting the ship.” (If it was said, I missed it, but there is no way I am watching that meeting again. I don’t care how long it is posted on YouTube).

That would have been the right thing to do and refreshing to hear. Tyler Lane interviewed some parents after the debacle and this pretty much sums it up perfectly: “It’s an embarrassment. It’s an embarrassment,” said Albert Hill Middle School mom, Julie Trevey. “I don’t hear from any of my friends who have kids in other school districts that they are dealing with this kind of drama or distraction.”

“There’s a desire to create conflict when we need to focus on our students, improving their learning, getting back to the levels pre-COVID,” Trevey said. “And stop with the drama. Just stop it.”

This column has been republished with permission from RVA 5X5.