Final Grades 

Everyone ostracized her. But after last week's election, the new School Board should get behind Kim Gray.

“If all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals.” -- Susan B. Anthony

Maybe, just maybe, the time is right for Richmond Public Schools to get it together and begin drawing families to our city instead of causing them to leave.

Richmond parents and concerned citizens certainly sent a serious message to current Richmond Public School Board members and school administrators last week when they elected six new board members and defeated two of three incumbents.

Sources close to the defeated incumbents -- Norma Murdoch-Kitt in the 3rd District and vice chairman Maurice Henderson in the 5th District -- say each was more blind-sided than Mitt Romney by Tuesday’s outcome; they had assumed they would be the leaders of the new board.

Much to the chagrin of those who sought to undermine and ultimately unseat her, Kim B. Gray was re-elected in the 2nd District, winning a decisive 68 percent of the vote. Don Coleman was also re-elected in the 7th District, but had no opposition.

For nearly four years, Gray has been the only board member asking the hard questions and the only one who would regularly return telephone calls from citizens.

Much like the recalcitrant members of Congress openly dedicated to limiting President Obama to one term, Gray’s colleagues have repeatedly tried to stymie her. They have bullied her in open meetings and behind closed doors, simply because she asked for pertinent information potentially embarrassing to them or to the superintendent.

All the while, they ignored community criticism and concerns about their own leadership. And, in dozens of dazzling displays of pigheadedness in the face of abundant facts -- for example, a 2011 drop-out rate of 14.1 percent and a four-year graduation rate of less than 60 percent -- the board continued to blather about its “steadfast commitment to achievement.”

Other than Gray, no board member was willing, or able, to speak honestly to the public about the realistic strengths and many shortcomings of the city school system, which costs taxpayers more than a quarter of a billion dollars a year while posting dismal SAT scores and failing to graduate a large percentage of its students.

It would be poetic justice if this slate of newly elected School Board members were to choose Gray to serve as chairwoman. Throughout the past four years, Gray has conducted herself with the kind of undaunted determination that Ernest Hemingway described as “grace under pressure.”

No matter what initiatives the business community undertakes or what stakeholder promises are made, our schools will not improve until we are represented by conscientious and dedicated School Board members who understand that it is their job to listen to citizens and address hard truths rather than blindly defend administrators who claim to be “education experts.”

If singing “Kumbayah” and circling the wagons in the face of mismanagement and wrongdoing could advance our city schools, they would have achieved excellence long ago.

If allowing administrators to submit budgets with precious little basis in reality could have made our schools better, they would be the envy of the country.

If lying about board finances and giving contracts to cronies and relatives could fix RPS finances, our school system would be the Apple of education, a model of management and best practices.

If cheating on the Standards of Learning tests, by ascribing to children disabilities they do not have in order to boost their scores, could deliver a truly educated student who is college-bound or job-ready, our city would not have so many children and young adults sitting in jail or languishing on public assistance.

After 30 years of active involvement in our city’s schools, I have had more than enough of the recurring excuses from members of the School Board and school superintendents, who try to explain away low test scores, low graduation rates, skyrocketing drop-out numbers and the crisis in our middle schools.

I am tired of watching good friends and young families flee the city when their children reach a certain age. And, I am way past tired of seeing so many of our young people swept into the cradle-to-prison pipeline that not only fills jails, but cripples hope and kills futures.

I know from direct experience that every member of the Richmond School Board 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 news releases and public spin, demand information and ask difficult questions about performance and the use of public funds. It’s so much more pleasant and less time-consuming to be a cheerleader.

The School Board’s repeated failure to carry out its statutory role of overseeing -- not just cheering on -- the administration, hurts the children and taxpayers of our city. It drags down the whole region.

Richmond schools need to change. We cannot afford to continue to waste time, money and our children’s futures for a mouthful of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” from elected officials.

Ask yourself: How many more generations of children will we sacrifice because we are unwilling to demand better from our city’s schools?

Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.

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