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Keith West Eyes School Board Chair

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As the Richmond School Board thrusts about for ways to salvage its flagging New Direction campaign, board member Keith West is calling for new leadership -- his own.

"If we're going to have a new direction, we're going to have to have new leadership," says West, a frequent critic of Chairman George Braxton.

West brought his criticisms from simmer to boil last week in a series of e-mails sent Dec. 27 and 28 to other board members in which he actively campaigned to take Braxton's chair.

This comes just weeks after the School Board announced the New Direction campaign to fix its ailing schools and bury the hatchet on so much infighting.

"You'll have a choice in Jan.," West writes in one e-mail. "The choice is not between personalities. It's between the new direction and continuity. Which do you think the parents and citizens of this city would vote for?"

"It's just appalling the failures we've had this year," West says, acknowledging his attempt to unseat Braxton. He says the chairman has a long series of failures of leadership, among them the School Board's bungled responses — and lawsuits — related to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's call for an audit of schools and to his withholding of money budgeted to schools by City Council. The School Board lost those suits.

"While all that is going on," West says, "we've got this [move of the School Board's information technology department] thing going on," referring to a move of the schools' computer servers to the Richmond Technical Center that cost more than $700,000 in funds that were never fully approved by the School Board. "The school administration is taking money that is unbudgeted and building this thing that is substandard out at the Tech Center."

After the details of that move came to light in late June — Braxton knew about the move in May — School Board members who claimed never to have been allowed to vote on the matter or on the expenditure called for an audit and investigation.

Wilder and the city's auditor, Umesh Dalal, have publicly announced intentions to investigate the IT move as well. In an e-mail to Style last week, Braxton insists the matter is closed.

A request for comment from Braxton on West's push to replace him as chairman went unanswered.

West says this and other incidents — including Braxton's "state of the schools" address delivered early last year — were often undertaken unilaterally and without informing the full board.

The state of the schools address, particularly, "was never approved by the board," West says. "It was provocative at that — this Churchillian language — like we're going to stand on the shores and fight the mayor."

The final straw came with Wilder's Sept. 21 attempted eviction of schools administrative offices from City Hall, West says. West says Braxton did not want to take a stand against the move, delaying a call by West and fellow board member Carol A.O. Wolf to call a public meeting on the 17th floor.

That meeting later proved pivotal in giving the School Board the foothold it needed to avoid eviction. S



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