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Richmond School Board violates state mandate to get leadership training; some members say they don't need it

Posted at 5:19 PM, May 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-13 17:19:20-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Public Schools parent Shannon Heady puts it bluntly regarding her observations of the Richmond School Board over the years.

“I think one of the things, if you ask any parent, caregiver, community leader who's watched the school board, they would say is that there's infighting and divisiveness and that there's not any kind of cohesion," Heady said.

It's not a unique criticism of the elected officials who govern the city's school district. And it's one of the reasons why Heady and other parents have formed a new group called REGS – Richmonders for Effective Governance of Schools.

"What we realized in our discussions is a lot of people had tried to do things individually, or advocate within their district, but there hadn't been a group that was just focused on supporting our school board," Heady said about the formation of the group.

One thing on the organization's radar is the Richmond School Board's violation of a state mandate to receive yearly professional development training from the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA). The board did not get training from the VSBA last year, citing scheduling conflicts.

“It's just indicative of the dysfunction and the fact that it's not enough of a priority. If you're an elected school board member, and you can't get your calendars together to do a training that's essential, then you shouldn't be on the school board," Heady said.

Since 2017, RPS has been placed under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). The VDOE can enter agreements like this with school districts when they exhibit a "division level failure" to meet state standards.

Annual training from the VSBA, which focuses on the board and superintendent's responsibilities for school improvement and academic achievement in challenged schools, is part of that MOU.

According to emails obtained by CBS 6 through an open records request, Richmond School Board Chair Stephanie Rizzi reached out to VDOE's state superintendent Lisa Coons in March regarding the board's training. Rizzi said she also wanted to ask Coons for guidance in handling "problems" with the board's "governance practices."

A few days later, VSBA executive director Gina Patterson told Rizzi that she alerted Coons that the VSBA would not be working with the Richmond School Board anymore.

"It was made apparent that members of your board are not inclined towards training from the Association," Patterson wrote in her email.

Then in April, Coons sent a letter to Rizzi and Superintendent Jason Kamras to alert them of their noncompliance with the training as required by the MOU, which was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Noncompliance could put the board at risk of losing millions of dollars in state funds.

Despite VSBA's refusal to work with the board and the involvement of the state superintendent, some school board members, including Shonda Harris-Muhammed, do not believe the training is necessary or valuable.

"I have repeatedly shared that this governing body does not need compliance training," Harris-Muhammed said in a statement to CBS 6, adding that instead, the board needs one-on-one professional development and to reshape its vision for the district. "VSBA cannot do that for us, and they haven't. That does not mean the organization is not an organization that has support to offer, it means some entities need something different. That is a fact."

She added, "I am dedicated to improving student outcomes that produces an effective superintendent evaluation system, a school board evaluation system, discussion and implementation of guardrails and produce an effective monitoring calendar which we do not have at this moment as a governance body who has the power to make equitable change. I am not concerned about political conversations that involve the VSBA."

Harris-Muhammed also questioned the oversight role and involvement of the VDOE's agreement with the division, saying, "I have stated publicly since late 2021 that our MOU in its current state was not working for our school division."

Board member Kenya Gibson agreed with Harris-Muhammed's position.

“We've had this MOU in place with the state for some time, and we haven't seen the needle move in the way that we would like to see it," Gibson said. “I don't personally believe that the training is the factor that's hindering progress as we'd like to see it as a city. I wish it was that easy.”

Gibson said she was also concerned about the training being connected to political pressure to privatize public schools. However, during a May 6 school board meeting, chairwoman Rizzi disputed such a claim and said she was "lost" about any correlation between the training and outside influences.

During that meeting, other board members including Mariah White, Cheryl Burke, and Shavonda Dixon, and Superintendent Kamras expressed support for moving forward with a plan to resume governance training.

The board voted unanimously in favor of working with the Council of Great City Schools, which primarily works with urban school districts, for a two-day training event which will cost at least $10,000.

The VDOE said it was informed by Kamras on Monday that the board has requested a revision to its MOU so that it can receive training from the Council of Great City Schools instead of the VSBA.

CBS 6 reached out to Board Chair Rizzi and Vice Chair Liz Doerr to request interviews and comments. Rizzi said she was unavailable due to being out of town. Doerr did not respond.

Heady said it's her hope that more parents will pay attention to the school board and get engaged to advocate for effective leadership.

“Because what's happening now is all of the infighting is preventing the school board and our superintendent and the administration from doing the good work we need to," Heady said.

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