As one of nine members of the Richmond School Board, one faces a threshold choice. You can choose to be a cheerleader for the administration. Or you can actually do your job — look behind the administration's news releases and public spin, demand information and ask difficult questions about performance and the use of public funds.
It's so much more pleasant and less time-consuming to be a cheerleader. That's why there are eight of them on this board.
The School Board's repeated failure to carry out its statutory role of overseeing — not just cheering on — the administration, makes all the more disappointing a recent University of Virginia report on the board.
Portraying outspokenness as a lack of civility or team spirit, university researcher Ron Broadbent's report goes out of its way to attack Kimberly B. Gray, the only board member who can be counted on to question the administration. (Read a copy of the report here.)
Other than Gray, no board member can be relied upon to speak honestly to the public about the strengths and shortcomings of the city school system, a system that costs taxpayers more than a quarter of a billion dollars a year while posting dismal SAT scores and failing to graduate a large percentage of its students.
In addressing alleged problems of process and improprieties of the board, the report totally misses the boat. Amazingly, both Broadbent and the Richmond Times-Dispatch story on his report failed to note the most egregious impropriety of all — Superintendent Yvonne Brandon asking Broadbent to put into writing a report critical of the board that is — by law — her boss. Thus, rather than criticize the School Board's subservience to the administration, both the report and the Times-Dispatch story reinforce it. A missed opportunity.
Brandon had the report not only reduced to writing, but also boldly released to news media. She knew she openly could attack the one member who makes her life difficult because she effectively controls the board instead of the other way around.
School Board Chair Kimberly Bridges called the report a “net positive,” no doubt because she and the majority of her colleagues sustained little or no political damage in the news account of Brandon's attack.
Too bad Broadbent failed to mention the overtly rude and verbally abusive behavior that Brandon and other members of the board repeatedly demonstrate toward Gray during School Board meetings.
For example, his notes on the Aug. 2 and Aug. 16 meeting criticize Gray for speaking “five different times regarding the [transportation] audit and four different times during the discussion on [a report regarding American with Disabilities Act compliance],” but fail to mention why Gray kept asking questions.
Broadbent neglects to mention in his report the nature of Gray's questions and that the chairman and the members of the board constantly interrupt Gray. Observers at those meetings describe the manner in which the superintendent and board members ignored her questions as “appalling.”
Gray, in fact, was questioning how the superintendent could sign a construction contract to oversee the ADA improvements and pay by the hour as opposed to by particular projects without seeking board approval. Thus far, the Richmond schools have paid close to $1 million to the construction management company.
“She kept pushing to get her questions answered and they kept stonewalling her. I admire her tenacity,” recalls a resident in attendance at both meetings.
Examples abound of Gray's efforts to bring greater accountability to the system: She opposed the clearly unconstitutional gag order that the board adopted soon after being seated, worked with parents at Fox and Carver elementary schools to craft a budget friendlier to teacher-pupil ratios than to protecting the bloated school administration, and regularly tries to focus the board's attention on apparent waste of resources.
Gray's is the only voice we heard asking the unpleasant questions about why sleeping children were left on school buses on days when Richmond's temperatures hit triple digits, and why expensive computers that should have been in classrooms were left in a warehouse for months on end.
Evidently, she's perhaps the only board member who actually reads the numerous audits and investigators' reports and isn't afraid to question the district's repeated procurement violations, financial mismanagement and abuse of authority — including the wasted time, shoddy workmanship and millions of dollars of excessive construction costs involved in the schools' slow crawl to satisfy the terms of a U.S. District Court decree on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Altria, the company which paid for the report, has paid dearly since 2003 for School Board members and administrators to receive valuable training through the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education Partnership for Leaders in Education. One cannot help wondering what would happen if Michael E. Szymanczyk, chairman and chief executive of Altria, were to hire an outside entity to observe his company's board of directors and then request that a critical report be written about the one director who questioned his judgment and job performance and then release it to reporters.
Instead of letting themselves be used to stifle dissent on the School Board, the good people at U.Va. and Altria could have pointed out that dissent is as American as the Fourth of July and as elemental to the health of public education as the air we breathe. Polite silence advances only the status quo, not improvement.
Any effort to bring substantive change to public education needs individuals willing to rock the boat, as well as those who can row the boat. Now that we know who rocks the boat on the School Board, perhaps someone can explain why those who are supposed to row the boat aren't picking up their oars.
Carol A.O. Wolf is a former Richmond School Board member.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.