As a member of the City of 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 press releases and public spin, demand information, read relevant documents, and ask hard 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 the Board.
The repeated failure of the Board to carry out its statutory role of overseeing—not just cheering on—the Administration, makes all the more disappointing the recent Richmond Times Dispatch story about a University of Virginia report on the Richmond School Board.
Portraying outspokenness as a lack of civility or team spirit, U.Va. 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.
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 billion dollars a year while posting dismal SAT scores and failing to graduate a large percentage of its students. For more RPS statistics, click here.
In addressing alleged problems of process and improprieties of the Board, the report totally misses the boat. Amazingly, both the RTD reporter and Broadbent failed to note the most egregious impropriety of all–-the Superintendent’s asking Broadbent to put into writing a report critical of the board that is--by law--her boss. Thus, rather than criticize the Board’s subservience to the Administration, both the report and the RTD story reinforce it. A missed opportunity.
Brandon not only had the report reduced to writing, but she boldly released it to the press. She knew she could openly 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 the RTD didn't question why Broadbent failed to mention the overtly rude and verbally abusive behavior that Brandon and other members of the board repeatedly demonstrate towards Gray during School Board meetings.
Broadbent's notes on the August 2 and August 16, 2010 meeting criticize Gray for speaking “five different times regarding the audit and four times during the discussion of the A.D.A. report,” but fail to mention that the Chairman and the members of the board constantly interrupt her. Observers at those meetings describe the manner in which the superintendent and board members ignored her questions as "appalling."
"She was questioning how it could be that the Supt. could sign a contract with a construction management firm to oversee the ADA improvements by the HOUR as opposed to by particuar projects, without seeking board approval." RPS has paid close to a million dollars to the company.
"She kept pushing to get her questions answered and the chairman and other members of the board never, ever answered her."
Would that Broadbent -- in the spirit of accuracy and fairness -- have noted what it is that causes Gray to dissent from the group-think of her colleagues and RPS administrators. A few examples would have sufficed--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 RPS 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 is the only Board member who actually reads the numerous audits and investigator general 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 RPS’s slow crawl to satisfy the terms of a U.S. District Court Consent Decree on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Altria, the funder of the report, has paid dearly since 2003 for RPS Board members and administrators to receive valuable training through U.Va.'s Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education Partnership for Leaders in Education. Yet one cannot help wondering what would happen if Michael E. Szymanczyk, the chairman and CEO of Altria, were to hire an outside entity to observe the behavior of 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. Now, imagine what would happen if Szymanczyk were to release that report to the media.
Would that, instead of letting themselves be used to stifle dissent on the Richmond School Board, the good people at U.Va. and the Altria Board of Directors had 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 at RPS, perhaps someone can explain why those who are supposed to row the boat aren't picking up their oars.