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Final Exam

The Richmond School Board has been accused of talking too much and listening too little. Now it's fighting for a passing grade.

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It hasn't been an easy year. Recent concerns include budget woes, dilapidated school facilities, curricula driven solely by SOL test preparation, experienced teachers retiring in droves and younger teachers leaving city schools after only a few years.



The board sits through a public comment session, two PowerPoint presentations and a puppet show for preschoolers. Then looms the most formidable beast on the agenda: next year's budget.



Board members must, by law, balance the budget by June 3 — otherwise, there won't be enough time to get contracts to teachers before the end of the school year. If the board preserves out-of-zone busing, as many parents and students are pressuring members to do, next year's shortfall would come to $3.6 million. The current projection of money available totals about $225 million for the more than 25,000 students in the city's 62 schools.



As members listen to possible plans for cutbacks and wrangle over how to find the money, frustration mounts. "I am a little concerned," says R. M. "Reggie" Malone Sr., who represents the 7th District. "How did we get to this point?"



Good question. It's one most school-board members are asking themselves, as they face making last-minute money decisions after months of vacillating.



For example, on March 25 the board voted to cut 27 assistant-principal positions in 31 elementary schools, saving about $1.2 million. They also planned to save money by reducing the number of students bused to schools outside their home zone. At the next meeting, the board restored the 27 jobs after hearing criticism from parents and school administrators, and decided to rethink keeping out-of-zone transportation. At the May 6 meeting, after lengthy discussions (some members stayed until nearly 1 a.m.) the board tabled the decision on busing once more.



"Every time an issue comes up, we seem to have waffled on it," says William Midkiff Jr. of the 1st District.



Evette L. Wilson, a longtime school-board observer who is running against Mason for the 9th District seat, calls members "flippy-floppy," easily swayed by criticism.



Larry A. Olanrewaju, chairman of the board, says indecision results when members concentrate more on maintaining their own images rather than taking a firm stand on issues. "They'll do anything," he says, "even if it is the wrong thing, to placate people so they'll be looked on favorably in the next election."



A board member for four years, Olanrewaju says he doubts the infighting will stop as long as people see the board as a place to get ahead politically. Or, says Wilson, as a place to settle in comfortably. "It's a commitment, not a career," she says, criticizing members who stay for several terms. "Of course, you may get a few gray hairs from school board meetings," she says, but "you shouldn't age in the position."



A significant shakeup may happen next year. "As of right now, it could be a whole new board, a whole new leadership," Jackson says.



Although June 11 is the deadline to register as a candidate, it's already clear at least four members aren't returning: J. M. "Jackie" Jackson, who's running for City Council in the 8th District; J. S. McClenney-Neal of the 5th District; Vice Chairman Frank E. Clark of the 6th District; and Mark Emblidge of the 2nd District.



Of the nine members of the board, though, the departing members have "not been the antagonistic parties," Midkiff says. He hopes that those who fill the empty spots will be, like the four departing, of a conciliatory nature — "more interested in getting things achieved rather than asserting themselves."



The trick will be getting off to a fresh start next year, Wilson says. What are the biggest challenges awaiting the board?



No. 1 is making sure Richmond's schools, 26 of which are ranked among Virginia's 97 lowest-performing schools, get their students up to speed with the SOLs, Emblidge says. There's not much time. In 2004, standards for graduating will become more stringent, and by 2007, schools must have at least 70 percent of students passing the SOLs or they will lose accreditation. "We have got to do a much better job of making sure our kids are successful workers," Emblidge says.



Candidate Wilson, a teacher in Richmond schools for 14 years, says a central obstacle is the school board's reluctance to walk into classrooms. Members should simply go to schools and ask teachers what they need, Wilson says, whether it's chalk, new textbooks, or an algebra refresher course. "Give me that list," she says, "and between the school system, the principal and outside support, we'll get what you need."



Olanrewaju counters, "The majority of the board is in touch with what is going on in the classroom." There are limitations to what members hear, he admits, because most reports come from school administrators, not directly from teachers.



Also, Jackson and Wilson say, the board and the superintendent are often lax in responding to students, parents and teachers — even in telling them what actions the board is considering.



Another pressing issue, Midkiff says, is the abundance of run-down, unneeded schools. "We are grossly over-buildinged," he says. Richmond could close six schools, Midkiff thinks, and save money by redistricting and rerouting buses accordingly.



Wilson says the board should then turn its attention to fulfilling basic needs, like new computers and facility repairs, especially in schools that have been traditionally underserved. "That's what we should be working for, instead of a mecca," Wilson says, referring to the perks given to model schools with magnet programs. "There should be meccas all around the district."



Midkiff says what's needed is parent involvement. Without it, he says, students drop everything they learn, along with their backpacks, at the front door every day. Olanrewaju suggests finding "a way to educate our children that might be outside the norm," like mandatory summer school for those who are falling behind. Jackson says her biggest frustration is "wanting to pay our teachers more and can't. Wanting to show our teachers appreciation and can't."



Regardless of what the board tackles first, one thing is certain. "We've got a lot of work to do," Midkiff says. S





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