In the often-fractious first year of the Richmond Public Schools' mostly-new board, 7th District Representative Don Coleman was the calming presence. "He's Buddha," says a School Board observer. So, it came as welcome news to many that it earlier this month elected him as its new chairman. He replaces Jeffrey Bourne, a former deputy chief of staff to Mayor Dwight Jones.
Coleman, co-pastor at the East End Fellowship, was chosen by his colleagues the same night they unanimously finalized new Superintendent Dana Bedden's four-year, $225,000 annual contract.
The new chairman answered questions about the future of the schools, and how it hinges on the board learning to work together.
Style: We have a new School Board chairman and a new superintendent. What are students and parents going to see change immediately?
Coleman: I think the greatest impact is a freshness, a sense that we're committed to making sure that kids get the type of education that they need. There's a lot of energy around change and reform.
A year ago you had a new School Board. That was a little bit of a rocky year. … The past is behind us. Everybody had an expectation, especially of the seven new people elected, of a mandate for reform. We didn't really get a lot of reform done last year. Now, there's an opportunity as we're melding together as a board, with a new superintendent, to move some things forward.
There are 10 areas where Bedden could get additional performance pay, including improved Standards of Learning scores to general accreditation. There's also been some trouble getting accurate data from the school system. Does measuring him against those numbers mean there will be more focus on getting good data?
The public needs to decide at some point that we trust the data collection that we do. Dr. Bedden is coming in, and we're going to get clear data collection. That's what has to happen. People have to trust that what we're measuring is authentic and the answers we're giving are authentic. I don't think we're going to have a problem with that. … People are giving us an opportunity, and we have to produce results.
At the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School opening Bedden said Richmond Public Schools won't be an employment agency. He isn't wasting any time.
He framed it as "courageous conversations" and he was courageous right at the beginning by saying that. We're not an employment agency. We're looking for people to do the job. With this board and Dr. Bedden, Richmond Public Schools is going to become a destination for people who really want to make a difference in an urban school setting. That's the kind of strength I feel coming from him.
The statement could be read as saying teachers or the lack of quality teachers are the main obstacle the district faces to academic success.
Well, Dr. Bedden's quote was preceded by him saying that he has found a lot people doing good, hard work in Richmond. For those people, if you're doing a good job, he wants to work with you. If not, those are courageous conversations we have to have. My perspective is similar. We have a lot of hardworking teachers. We have a lot of hardworking administrators. But at the end of the days, our schools have not performed at the level the community wants them to. It's obvious we have to make changes. We will treat people with dignity, but we will not tolerate a lack of academic achievement.
So, in addition to honing in on and improving the teaching and administrative ranks, what do you see as other priorities in the challenge to academic improvement?
I think this is going to sound crazy, but there has to be a commitment from the entire community to recognize that we have a lot of students who come from challenging environments who need additional support. We know, data shows, that invested, involved adults make a difference in the achievement of students. So we are asking for all hands on deck. We have a new superintendent, new attitudes, why not come and be a part of the solution?
A lot of people saw the split vote to close Clark Springs Elementary as a breakdown into two camps. What does your ascendancy to the chair position signal from the School Board?
That's why I'm the chair. The factions trust that I'm not in any faction. Now, of course the factions won't say that there are any factions. There's no question part of the reason why I'm chair is that my colleagues trust I will hear all sides and facilitate hopefully us coming to better solutions. I can tell you sincerely with the election of Dr. Bedden and my election, in our closed sessions, it was clear to me that people are recognizing that in order to actually get things done we're going to have to find ways to operate as a collaborative. … Dr. Bedden talks about a team of 10 — him and the nine School Board members.
With the superintendent selection done, setting a budget is the next big task. With all the issues the schools are facing, what are your priorities going to be?
That's why we're paying Dr. Bedden the big bucks. He's going to have to hit the ground and help us develop a plan. He already has some ideas. The budget is going to help us develop the overall climate in this city and its investment in education. That's going to be one of his first tests, that when we come out of the budget session the community, the mayor and the City Council say … that even with limited resources this is a place where we're willing to make an investment.