Last week marked the end of winter break for Richmond Public School students. But for the School Board charged with directing the future of those schools, it was a momentous beginning.
The board is almost completely new. Three incumbents were ousted, five seats vacated. A new mayor is in. After eight years of a contentious relationship between the board and the mayor, 2017 brings a fresh start for all.
Family and friends of School Board members crowded the warm meeting room on the 17th floor of City Hall last Tuesday, cameras aloft and children in their Sunday best. People were on good behavior — perhaps a few visible nerves. Tentative questions about process and seating arrangements peppered the evening.
“The voters of Richmond made it very, very clear on Nov. 8 that the School Board needed to make a statement,” says Dawn Page, who was unanimously elected chairwoman. “That every child deserves a quality education. And we will work toward that.”
The only returnee is Jeff Bourne of the 3rd District, but his name is being floated as a contender for a House of Delegates seat likely to open after Jan. 10.
“The benefits far outweigh the challenges,” Bourne says of the fresh faces. “New members have new energy, new ideas and new skill sets. And I think the new board members don’t come in with any baggage or preconceived notions.”
Liz Doerr, who beat an incumbent in the 1st District, says she expects openness to ideas. “You don’t have the conversations like, ‘Oh it can’t be done because it’s been done before,’” she says. “That might make me sound optimistic and green, but I think it’s exciting for Richmond. We aren’t coming in encumbered by the challenges of the previous administration.”
Bourne, who was on Mayor Levar Stoney’s transition team, says an educational compact among city administration, City Council, the School Board and Superintendent Dana Bedden is pending. And the board is working on a collective list of priorities.
“One of the biggest priorities is setting a nonadversarial tone and focusing on moving things forward,” Doerr says.
She has a finance background and says she spent her holiday plane ride to Portugal creating spreadsheets for the board to use during the coming budget process. “I love that kind of thing,” she says, “and I’m kind of a nerd about it.”
The board unanimously passed “a cooperative resolution with City Council.” Members deliberated over the calendar for the budget, seemingly eager to collaborate with the mayor’s office at every step.
“This budget is our opportunity to come out of the gate strong,” says member Nadine Marsh-Carter, whose father, former mayor and state senator Henry Marsh, held the Bible upon which she was sworn. “I think we need a little more time. We want to make sure this budget is truly ours.”
A round of speakers mostly offered platitudes of congratulations and encouragement. But former School Board member Mamie Taylor was there too. Patrick Sapini edged her out of the 5th District seat in an election she tried to contest.
“My situation is still pending,” she says. “Hopefully, you all won’t have to deal with what I’ve had to deal with.”
Sapini was unanimously elected vice chairman of the board.
The day before, at John Marshall High School, students had returned from winter break. They shuffled down the hallways on their way to breakfast, rain-soaked shoes squeaking on the linoleum.
Stoney was there, too. Trailed by Bourne, he walked through the metal detectors in his tailored suit and skinny tie to greet the principal, William Royal.
“There’s a lot of promise here at Richmond Public Schools,” Stoney says.
Some students eye him warily and many hide from the cameras that follow him around. “Go Dukes!” he shouts to a student bound for James Madison University, his alma mater. “You’re making the right choice!”
Royal says Bourne is a regular in their halls, but he’s not used to city leadership coming through. “With the new School Board, I’m really looking forward to the cooperation and the support that [Stoney’s] promised,” Royal says. “Hopefully, it’ll be for the betterment of the kids.”
Stoney was also at the first School Board meeting Tuesday for the swearing in. The new mayor has met with each member one-on-one and urges the group to focus on lifting youth out of poverty through the public schools.
“There is one part of the oath that has always stood out to me, as someone who has administered the oath on a number of occasions, and that is, ‘According to the best of my abilities,’” Stoney says. “And I believe, as we all believe, that each and every child, no matter what ZIP code they live in, deserves our very best.” S