Richmond city school board leadership: it is time for change

On Monday the City School Board votes for a new Board Chairman. The state of our schools effects everyone. Are you ready to make a difference?

One of Richmond’s great faults is that its citizenry rarely knows when opportunites are knocking that allow them to push for change. The Downtown Plan is a recent exception and the turnout and input was immense compared to years past. People want change and want to be a part of it. Well, that door is knocking again on Monday and you have a big opportunity to be heard.

Part of the reason we rarely answer opportunity’s knock is the media many times informs us only after the fact. Other times we are just too busy. Sometimes we just don’t give a damn. The government is usually of little help in letting us know, either, but blogs and emails can make a difference and now is your chance.

The leadership of the Richmond School Board is up for grabs on Monday night and there is a challenger with a vision and an incumbent with the status quo. There is a list of action items the challenger wants to address and there is a list of underwhelming achievements from the current leadership.

Keith West is challenging George Braxton for the Board Chairmanship and now is the perfect opportunity – as a citizen, as a parent, as a taxpayer, as a human interested in seeing kids have an opportunity to succeed – to call for that change.

The tally of the current leadership’s accomplishments is anorexic.

They closed a few schools but three of the four were tiny and the other was closed due to the Battery Park situation (the total number of kids affected by the “five ” closings was only a few hundred students). They have stabilized the disastrous Education Foundation situation; and they have begun developing the New Direction Plan (which is the brainchild of Keith West). Other than that, the liabilities far outweigh the assets. They include:

  1. The $700,000 unauthorized move of the RPS Information Technology Department.
  2. They also include the perpetual stalling and playing chicken with moving the RPS offices.
  3. There was a grand vision of a 2015 Initiative that has failed to see any follow up on implementation.
  4. There was perpetual stalling and failure to investigate who obstructed the City Auditor from completing his task.
  5. There were budget cuts of janitors and counselors instead of a hard push for rooting out other administrative waste.
  6. There were the failed lawsuits against the Mayor when everyone said stop while you are behind.
  7. There is the ongoing failure to address ADA issues (this goes back 12 years).
  8. Not to mention a 47% graduation rate, constant trouble with fights breaking out at schools, appalling truancy, and disappearing freshman.

On top of all those problems, two statements made by Mr. Braxton further demonstrate the time has come for new leadership. In the State of the Schools address in January 2007, he compared the mayor to the Nazi’s and the school system to the defiant British led by Churchill in 1940 (this went unreported).

In a committee meeting last month with the ADA plaintiffs, Braxton’s soliloquy destroyed the spirit of the meeting when he said “the board was trying to create new, accessible buildings, not crappy, accessible buildings” to which the plaintiff – whose son is disabled – retorted “I would much rather my son get into a crappy accessible school than not get into it at all.” Braxton then challenged the plaintiff’s lawyer to drag the Board back in front of the judge for remediation. The Schools can only hope that they do not draw the ire of Judge Hudson.

Now I do not know Mr. Braxton and have never met him and my criticism is not personal; it is based on his record. He could be as jolly as Santa Claus but if you are not effective, then I think it is time for a new St. Nick. It is clear the current leadership has failed and another year of the same will result in more of the same.

None of my posts are personal attacks on the character or integrity of any member of the School Board. All the members do a difficult, thankless, underpaying job. I am not advocating removing anyone from the Board but simply, that the Board try something new and we as citizens request it of our Board members.

We have a chance now to gain real momentum with new voices and ideas. With November elections for four year terms approaching, if we build momentum, any new members elected to the Board will already know which direction the train is heading and where the momentum is taking them. If we have another year of lackluster accomplishments and stagnation, new and returning members won’t have to worry about running to catch a train that is not moving. That will just make tackling problems more difficult.

Some of these problems listed, of course, have long been unaddressed by previous Boards for years and decades. The point here is that they are not being tackled now or they are not being addressed fast enough and it is time to try a new path.

I do know leadership when I see it, however, and Keith West is the man to lead the Board in 2008 along with Kim Bridges. Both West and Bridges are both one year into their first term and fresh faces in an otherwise stale bread box.

West has already notified the Board he is not running for his seat in the November elections again and thus able to help lead the Board and RPS in a new direction and set real change in motion without fretting over election strategy. More importantly, his resume overflows with qualifications of good leadership.

He graduated from the Naval Academy as a pilot and flew A-6 Intruders off the USS John F. Kennedy. He was screened, monitored and certified to carry nuclear weapons. He was leading flights of aircraft at age 25 and later created one of the first Internet travel businesses ( that for a few years was one of the top sources for hotel bookings.

After 9/11, he started a charity and raised $600,000 and placed the funds in trust to benefit the educational needs of victim’s children. No one associated with the fund received any compensation, not even for expenses.

This School Board assigned him the task of rewriting the Board By-laws for the first time in years, as well as pushing the New Direction Plan that aims to help develop the whole child from an early age. Such tasks would not be assigned to someone who was not trustworthy or incapable of getting the job done.

Unlike the 2015 Initiative which fizzled on arrival, West’s New Direction plan already has a rough outline and the Board held meetings across the school districts to receive parental input. There is a long way to go but it has at least some momentum.

Listen to this interview from last spring with West on WRVA and get a glimpse of West and his way of thinking and judge for yourself. It is an impressive interview that left me thinking (before I ever met him) why isn’t this guy running the Board?

The point is that change is possible. It is not only possible, it is possible on Monday night at 6pm if just a few Board members can be persuaded to put the schools’ leadership on a new wing. The current wing we are on is that of an ostrich (they can’t fly, btw) and will not bring about needed change. Continuity for the sake of it is not a persuasive argument if the past is filled with unrealized goals.

It is safe to say Braxton and Dawson will vote for the status quo. 9th District member Evette Wilson will likely support that as well.

Carol Wolf (3rd) has said she will support the West/Bridges leadership team and it only takes 5 votes.

The members that need to be persuaded are Betsy Carr (5th District) and Chandra Smith (6th) and Joan Mimms (8th). If two of them are willing to step up and display the courage to truly head in a new direction, we might see the opportunity to effect real change with our schools.

We’re talking about re-establishing a Board that shapes the direction of the schools’ priorities that the RPS administration must implement and not a rubber stamp of unapproved directives.

We might see a real change in dealing with the city administration that is at the minimum talkative if maybe even constructive.

We might see a real change with implementing budgetary savings that can be applied elsewhere in RPS.

We might see real change in dealing with trying to solve the ADA settlement rather than deflect the blame and delay.

We might see that kids begin to have more of a chance because if the Board doesn’t lead, the kids have no chance.

This is the opportunity to change the school system here and now. It is your opportunity. It is not in the hands of 26 business leaders or an appointed board that would take years to take effect. It is in your hands and those of your friends to make our voices heard today.

George Patton once said “Courage is just fear holding on a minute longer.”

Change will only occur if we demonstrate the courage to demand from our elected leaders – in an election year, mind you – that one year with new leaders will not bring the Board to a halt and could hardly be as unproductive as the previous year with the same existing leaders. We know what we have, but can we do better and with whom?

People used to say my vote does not count until Al Gore lost by 519 votes in 2001, Creigh Deeds lost by less than that in 2005, and Katherine Waddell won by 42 votes the same year. It is not often we have an opportunity to make a real difference and this time we do.

Urge Betsy Carr and Chandra Smith and Joan Mimms to at least consider new leadership and that it is not just the purview of nine people to select the leaders of our schools. It is all of our responsibility.

Cut and paste below and email to Betsy Carr ( or Chandra Smith ( or Joan Mimms ( before Monday morning.

Dear Ms. [Fill in name]

I am writing to you to express my support for a change in leadership on the 2008 School Board.

I believe we need a fresh approach to our problems and past leadership has not been up to the task. I support the selection of Keith West and Kim Bridges to lead the coming Board as I think fresh faces and ideas are necessary.

Thomas Edison wrote “If there is a way to do it better… find it!” and that sums up where we are today with our schools’ leadership.

We need to find ways to do things better rather than ways we know already do not work and that requires new leaders.

I am a supporter of such change and hope you will also consider and vote on Monday night for the future of our great city.


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Jon Baliles

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