The search for a new superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools has begun, with forums underway to seek what community members want to see in a new leader.
But at a one Thursday, some people wondered how they could offer feedback without knowing why the last superintendent was fired.
“You don’t know what is just hearsay versus what is actual fact,” says Cora Gibson, a teacher at Greene Elementary School. “When we talked about transparency, this is a perfect situation where we’re not getting transparency.”
About 25 people attended the meeting at Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School, the second of four, including School Board members Dawn Page, Jonathan Young and Felicia Cosby.
Gibson said she was surprised by the announcement in late April of Bedden’s impending departure. “No one wants to talk about it,” she says. “It makes things kind of uncomfortable.”
Kathryn Haynes, a counselor at Oak Grove-Bellemeade and Reid elementary schools, wants a lot of things in a new superintendent, but she also wants to know what the School Board is seeking.
“The only thing we received was a communications letter saying it was a difference of philosophy,” Haynes says of Bedden’s departure. “As soon as I got to that word, I thought, ‘I don’t know what your philosophy is now.’”
Haynes wants the new superintendent to have a fair chance. “I don’t think three years is enough time for anyone to come in and turn the system around,” she says. Bedden started as superintendent in January 2014.
Breakout groups at the meeting identified strengths such as teachers and school locations. Pay raises were the biggest priority for many in attendance, and conversations touched on high turnover among teachers and overworked support staff, such as janitors. The balance between the need for discipline and the desire not to take children out of school as punishment also came up.
The most contentious issue at one breakout group was whether to hire a superintendent with a traditional or a nontraditional background -- the latter being a desire expressed by at least one School Board member.
David Jones Sr. wanted someone with a business background, not necessarily a former educator. The teachers’ jobs are to teach, he said, and the superintendent’s is to manage.
“If you’re using the business model, that’s not the intention of schools,” Melissa Cuba said. “You’re taking away from the democratic process of what school means and how it serves students.”
Jones brought up Dana Bedden’s education background as a principal and school administrator. “If he was a great superintendent,” Jones said, “we wouldn’t be here tonight.”
“They should first have experience in being able to teach and run a school,” Cuba said. “If they don’t know what it involves and the intensity of being a teacher, then I don’t think they have a right to hold that position.”
All agreed that the leader should be visionary, transparent and someone who holds students to high expectations.
School Board members signed away their right to discuss Bedden’s firing as part of severance negotiations. A timeline presented at a meeting in early May had a search company in place by Aug. 1. The board is legally obligated to have someone working before the end of the year.
Despite her reservations about the decision, Gibson said she was hopeful about the board’s future choice.
“I want to say that they have the best intentions for our school district,” she says. “That they’re going to give our students the top priority and find who’s best for our district.”
Haynes concurred. “I can guarantee, no matter whom you talk to,” she said, “the bottom line is we’re here for the kids.”
Meetings about the superintendent search continue Tuesday and Wednesday.