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Unnatural Selection 

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It was late afternoon when my daughter and I approached a neighborhood playground near Thomas Jefferson High School recently and saw a large handwritten sign in front of the building that read “Public Meeting.”

It was a curious sign because it didn't say what the meeting was about. That's one basic tenet of advertising broken, I thought. As a small group exited the building, I asked one man, “What was this for?”

“Choosing the public school superintendent.”

“Really?” I said, gesturing at my 6-year-old daughter, who was soon to begin first grade in a Richmond public school. “I might've wanted to sit in on that.”

“Well,” he said, laughing, getting into his car, “they spent most of the meeting talking about how no one showed up.”

As he drove away, I looked over at the nearby playground and thought about how simple it would have been to post a flier about the gathering there, and at other community spots where parents and public schoolchildren gather.

But that's the kind of common-sense thing one would think of if one were, you know, a parent or someone who deals with parents on a regular, day-to-day basis. It turns out that the committee that School Board Chairman George Braxton appointed to find the new superintendent is short on expertise that could recognize this. Missing among the representatives of this selection committee are — wait for it — actual parents of Richmond schoolchildren or any active teachers in the public school system.

To be fair, Braxton didn't totally neglect those voices; the president of the Richmond Education Association and a vice president of the Richmond Council of PTAs each had a seat. There was also a former Richmond school superintendent and one current Richmond public school principal; also seated was the superintendent of the Chesterfield schools and the director for the Center for Leadership in Education at the University of Richmond.

But to represent the greater Richmond community — that's parents, teachers, taxpayers, crossing guards, you and me — Braxton chose five highly connected members of the Gang of 26, a group of area business titans who submitted a controversial proposal last year that, among other things, called for Richmond School Board members to be appointed and for city parents' voting rights to be taken away when it comes to electingSchool Board members.

This group, a snapshot of Style Weekly's Power List, released July 23, includes the chairman of a diversified holding company, a bank president, a grocery chain executive and, yes, a tobacco company executive. The chairman of the selection committee is the chief executive of an energy conglomerate and the man who allegedly oversaw the Gang of 26 letter.

So should it surprise us that this committee, disproportionately represented by people who don't think much of direct public input into the affairs of public education, held four public meetings in a brief span of time? ... and that few residents bothered to attend, or even knew they were happening?

It didn't surprise Art Burton. “The negligible public turnout for the community dialogues was a significant vote of no confidence in the current process,” the 6th District candidate for School Board recently said.

The public was on to something. The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently reported that the selection process was “on hold pending the arrival of bids from national firms that specialize in superintendent searches.” It seems that there was a request made to solicit funds from these companies, but, as the newspaper reported, “the document appears to be a draft version, with a variety of errors and omissions.”

It's unclear if the bush-league mistakes can be corrected in due time (state law dictates that Richmond has to choose a new superintendent by the end of January), but Burton says he knows why the ball was dropped.

“This selection committee was formed with no process in place, nor any duties or responsibilities identified,” he says. “And after it was formed, the group was informed that they would receive their assignment in June. The end result is a team that is uninformed about the hiring process or the necessary qualifications of a superintendent and the limited scope of their composition means that they are not representative of the entire community.”

In all fairness, the idea of appointing a city committee dominated by a limited gene pool of metro business interests didn't begin with Braxton's selection committee. It is, in fact, how the people's work is done in Richmond. And for all the leaders' good intentions and resources, it can be a problem, consultant Jim Crupi writes. Such a stagnant approach to civic leadership doesn't let fresh ideas or new leaders in.

In a widely publicized 55-page report last year — commissioned by key members of the business community — Crupi found that Richmond's leaders “undervalue social and intellectual capital. People with social networking skills or creative ideas are typically not brought ‘to the table’ on community projects or issues unless they also have economic means. That is a real problem because it takes people with a range of skills and cultural backgrounds to build community power and diversity of thought; ironically skills that [the leaders] recognize when it comes to global competition.”

That's the rub. So if our best corporate citizens are unable to be as professional and conscientious in representing us as they are in fronting their formidable companies, and if they can't use their considerable resources and influence to better inform the public about important meetings that concern our children, I'm not seeing the benefit of stacking up important city boards with Style Power List all-stars. I'd rather have some active parents and working teachers sitting on that committee.

That's not to say that we shouldn't be thankful that our most distinguished corporate citizens are available to lend their considerable skills to important civic matters. We are, gratefully. But if these men ran their formidable companies like they're running the selection committee for Richmond's school superintendent, they wouldn't stay in business a week. S

Don Harrison is a Richmond-based freelance writer and the co-founder of www.saverichmond.com.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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