The Richmond Crusade for Voters wants Superintendent Jason Kamras gone. The School Board responds.

Posted at 6:17 PM, Feb 20, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-20 19:39:26-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Richmond Crusade for Voters (RCV), a historic organization that supports and empowers Black participation in local politics, called on the Richmond School Board to cut ties with Superintendent Jason Kamras.

“It starts and stops at the top," Garry Callis, the group's education committee chair, said in an interview Tuesday. “It's a matter of accountability. It's a matter of transparency. It's a matter of, if we want something different, you can't keep going with the same old, same old.”

A year and a half after RCV declared an "educational crisis" amid the release of poor Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores among Richmond Public Schools students, the organization said it determined through its own research that Kamras has failed to achieve the goals he set when he was first hired by the school board in 2017.

RCV claimed Kamras has been "not successful" in areas including:

  • Getting 100% of schools accredited
  • Increasing the graduation rate
  • Improving proficiency and advance rates in core subjects

According to publicly available data, 20 of the district's 44 schools are currently accredited.

The graduation rate sits at 72%.

When Kamras first started, 19 schools were fully accredited, and the graduation rate was 75%.

SOL data posted to Tuesday night's Richmond School Board meeting agenda showed that high school students when compared to data from last winter, declined in reading, stayed the same in math, and made gains in science and history.

The 2023-2024 winter high school SOL results revealed:

  • 35% passed science
  • 39% passed history
  • 56% passed reading
  • 60% passed math

“We have kids that are inside high school that can't read or write on grade level. They're about to graduate. They can't pass certification examinations or whatever. That's a problem, so I would like to have someone that would attend to those issues," Callis said. "If you're trying to sell me a bill of goods, saying that we've gone from, let's say 24% to 30%, are you saying that we are making monumental changes? 30% is still an F in most grading systems."

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Garry Callis with the Richmond Crusade for Voters

While RCV blasted Kamras for a perceived lack of academic progress, Callis said they also took issue with how the district handled the $88,000 third-party investigation report into the deadly shooting that happened outside Huguenot High School's graduation, which was only publicly released after CBS 6 and the Richmond Times-Dispatch filed a lawsuit.

"The kind of tip of the iceberg is when that report came out about the shooting that took place over at the Altria. As egregious as that was, we thought it was most horrible for taxpayer money to be used for an investigation, and then a decision to be made to hold the information back from us," Callis said. "You've kind of lost our trust just a little bit there."

The nine elected members of the Richmond School Board are responsible for the hiring and removal of superintendents.

The body did not unanimously vote in favor of extending Kamras' contract for four years back in 2021, and since then, the superintendent has maintained a fragile majority of supporters on the board.

There have been many points of contention between current board members and Kamras over the years, including in August 2022 when the school board called an emergency meeting in response to poor SOL scores, causing Mayor Levar Stoney to address rumors that members could vote to fire Kamras.

CBS 6 reached out to every school board member for responses to RCV's request to remove Kamras.

Board members Liz Doerr (1st District), Mariah White (2nd District), and Dawn Page (8th District) did not respond to CBS 6's inquiries.

Doerr and Page have been supportive of Kamras over the years. White has been critical of the superintendent and has previously called for disciplinary action against him.

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Kenya Gibson (3rd District):

“When we were evaluating the superintendent's contract in 2021, I agreed with the Crusade for Voters and the NAACP who advocated for a shorter, two year extension. Three years later, we’ve seen an accelerated breakdown in the district. Missteps have led to growing staff turnover, fires, substandard lunches, and a deadly shooting," Gibson said in a statement.

She continued, "When a district is dysfunctional, every student suffers. In Richmond, working class Black and Latino students are impacted the most. It’s truly unfortunate, but I don’t have confidence that our administration is equipped to bring a culture shift where workers are empowered to identify and address the problems at hand.”

Jonathan Young (4th District):

“The Richmond Crusade for Voters in their assessment as it relates to where we're at as a school district is spot on. We've earned an F," Young said in an interview.

However, Young disagreed with who was to blame. He said the full responsibility does not completely fall on Kamras and encouraged his colleagues on the school board to look in the mirror.

“To point the finger at the superintendent and fail to acknowledge as a school board member that I have to own in that failure would be less than responsible," Young said. "We have avoided accountability for a really long time, and unfortunately, people have made excuses for us. But I think it's time, it's long overdue for people to hold yours truly and my colleagues accountable, and of course, the superintendent."

He added, "Let's not just attribute all of our shortcomings and/or failure to one person."

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Board Chair Stephanie Rizzi (5th District):

Rizzi said that many RCV members were not aware of and did not approve the statement issued by the group on Tuesday.

While she said leadership concerns are valid, she did not take a stance on RCV's request to dismiss Kamras.

"Though there is undoubtedly more work to be done and a need for growth and change, there are conditions beyond RPS' control that disproportionately impact our students. The increase in housing and food insecurity, inflation and the fact that in many cases wages for our families have not kept up with increases in living expenses, generational trauma that has been left unaddressed, mental health struggles, increased access to weapons and synthetic drugs, issues with transportation and access to quality health care, etc. are all factors that impact student achievement," Rizzi said in a statement.

She continued, "Though concerns regarding leadership are valid, let's not ignore the fact that there are thousands of RPS employees who show up every day giving their all to address our students' many needs. Perhaps the original strategic plan did not take all of this into account and did not do enough to acknowledge that addressing the inequities our students face necessitates an all hands on deck effort and that assigning blame without recognizing the complexities of our challenges is not a constructive approach."

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Shonda Harris-Muhammed (6th District):

"I am appreciative that the RCV has continued to follow the Richmond Public Schools instructional outcomes and operational disconfirguations that have negatively impacted our student outcomes and teacher retention. I am fully supportive of the Richmond Crusade for Voters and the work they have done and continue to do for our communities," Harris-Muhammed said in a statement.

She added, "RPS has been plagued with tiered levels of misalignments in the areas of instruction, operations, and culture/climate. Ultimately, the decision to release a superintendent from his or her contract is governed by the local school board. Our community must hold their elected officials accountable if we are not addressing the needs of the community while holding our division leadership accountable."

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Cheryl Burke (7th District):

"I wholeheartedly disagree with the Richmond Crusade and am disappointed that they chose to post this. No school division has reached all of its goals after the pandemic. But RPS is bouncing back faster than the state in most subjects and on chronic absenteeism; also, our graduation rate for Black students is up by 8%. The number of middle school students taking AP classes has increased by 54%," Burke said in a statement.

"Have we reached 100%, no, but we are moving in the right direction. Working together on behalf of every student with the Crusaders I believe would be beneficial. Help us build up our community of learners in RVA. We of course have lots more work to do and I believe Superintendent Kamras is the right leader to move us forward."

City leadership responds

Mayor Levar Stoney does not oversee the superintendent but has been considered a Kamras ally.

When asked by CBS 6 Tuesday about RCV's statement, he said he respected the group but added, “I would not make any significant decisions within the division because of a press release from the Richmond Crusade for Voters.”

Stoney said it was the school board's responsibility to create an environment for the superintendent to succeed and "just recently," he has observed more "cohesion and collaboration."

Members of the city council's education and human services (EHS) committee, including Stephanie Lynch, Cynthia Newbille, and former school board member Nicole Jones, released a statement in response to RCV.

While city council members also do not provide direct oversight of the superintendent, they allocate funding and approve the district' budget. And specifically, the EHS committee typically receives monthly updates from the superintendent.

“We echo the sentiments of our colleague, School Board Chair Rizzi and agree that the issues that ail Richmond Public Schools do not lay on any one person’s feet. We recognize the tremendous challenges that public education systems face everyday, particularly in a post-pandemic era in a city that has seen an increase in families experiencing homelessness, continued gaps in our mental health system and an ever-widening wealth disparity. These challenges are intertwined with classroom management issues, teacher retention rates and academic and absenteeism outcomes," the committee's statement read.

It continued, "These are not easy problems to solve and it is often our most vulnerable community members, our children, who pay the highest price for what adults- on every level of policy making, fail to fix. This is why we remain committed to advocating for increased funding and better policies at the state and federal level. Further, we remain steadfast in our mission to collaborate with our School Board Colleagues, the Superintendent, city administration and our stakeholders to make continuous strides towards improving our school district and the lives of RPS families and students across the city."

In a February briefing to the EHS committee, Kamras gave a positive update on the district's academic progress.

He cited a study that showed students in lower-income communities continue to have a more difficult time recovering from pandemic learning loss, but he said RPS is making greater strides in growth than other districts in the Commonwealth.

“I’m very pleased to say that while our overall achievement levels are still far too low, the degree to which we’re catching up is actually rather significant," Kamras said at the meeting.

CBS 6 requested an interview or comment from Kamras for this story, but a spokesperson declined.

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