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Two first-time School Board candidates are up against incumbent Cheryl Burke for the 7th District seat.

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It's been about a year since the Richmond School Board appointed longtime educator Cheryl Burke to fill the city's 7th District seat, which was left vacant after Nadine Marsh-Carter resigned in the wake of her husband's death.

On Tuesday, Nov. 6, voters will decide whether Burke will maintain her position or pass the baton on to one of her two opponents, Gary Broderick or Bryce Robertson.

Encompassing eight schools in the East End, the 7th District includes Armstrong High, one of the lowest performing schools in the system that hasn't met accreditation standards in seven years. Schools in the district have high rates of students on free and reduced lunch and teachers have less experience than those in other parts of the city. Many facilities, like George Mason Elementary, are dilapidated.

All three candidates agree that the students and teachers of the 7th District deserve better than crumbling buildings, overcrowded classrooms and extremely high rates of suspension and expulsion for black students that have plagued the schools for decades. Each candidate brings a different set of ideas and potential solutions to the table.

click to enlarge Gary Broderick - SCOTT ELMQUIST
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  • Gary Broderick

Gary Broderick

High school was a rough time for Gary Broderick. He struggled academically and when he left without graduating, he felt like most of his teachers — except the one who checked on him in the cafeteria — didn't care about him. He eventually got his GED diploma and attended college, and after about two years in Richmond he wants to bring about changes that would benefit kids who could fall through the cracks.

"I don't think, in general, schools are set up to allow a young person to make mistakes and then put that behind them and recover and allow them to grow from it," Broderick says, noting that addressing the school-to-prison pipeline is one of his top priorities.

Also on his list are consistently low literacy rates, not having enough adults in the building and facilities that he says aren't conducive to a positive learning environment. He wants to bring more restorative-justice learning into the schools, which he says would help address the disproportionate rate at which students of color are suspended or expelled.

"I think it's hard for our students to feel cared about as we ask them to go into facilities that are so clearly sending a signal that we don't care about them," Broderick says. "If you give young people the tools to understand that the school building falling apart is about a social injustice, then you help them have the dignity that comes from standing up to that injustice. If you don't give them that social justice teaching that gives them the lens to see it that way, then how could they not internalize that as [being] about their own value?"

For Broderick, the solution involves addressing the school system's dire need for more funding. If he wins the 7th District seat, he plans to push for a needs-based budget from the city and will prioritize lobbying the General Assembly for a higher corporate tax rate to help fund the schools.

"We need a School Board that's going to play a leadership role in getting more funding," he says. "We're always debating whether smokers should pay taxes but we're never debating whether Altria should. We need the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share. They are not, and as a result, our public services, including our schools, are underfunded."

click to enlarge Cheryl Burke - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Cheryl Burke

Cheryl Burke

A fourth-generation educator, Cheryl Burke has felt at home in school since she was a toddler. She'd tag along with her mother, who was a teacher, and scribble on the blackboard, then come home and set up a play classroom for her dolls and stuffed animals.

In graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University she switched her focus from becoming a reading specialist to an administration program, which launched her 38-year career with the Richmond Public Schools. She lived close enough to Chimborazo Elementary School to walk to work during her 19 years as principal. As the interim 7th District representative on the School Board, Burke wants to continue her education advocacy work that is deeply rooted in community engagement.

Burke says people laughed at her when she spearheaded an effort to clean up Chimborazo. She recalls being greeted by empty beer bottles, cigarette butts, rat droppings and worse on her first day, and she knew improving the school had to start with improving the space.

"My first year I just concentrated on building relationships and convincing people that they were worthy, that they were deserving of better," she says.
Her list of past projects includes feeding displaced families after Hurricane Gaston brought flooding to the city in 2004 and organizing a jazz festival to raise money for new instruments at Chimborazo.

When asked what she believes to be the top issue facing the district today, her answer is student achievement, which encompasses providing the necessary resources for teachers and enhancing mental health support for students. She's in support of Mayor Levar Stoney's recent meals-tax increase and would be in favor of pushing the General Assembly for more funding, but she believes the key to closing the equity gap is building relationships within the community.

click to enlarge Bryce Robertson - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bryce Robertson

Bryce Robertson

His story is a familiar one to many Richmond families. Robertson attended elementary school in the city and moved to Hanover County before starting middle school. His parents, concerned about the quality of education he could receive in the city schools, made the difficult decision to move the family so that he and his younger brother could attend schools with more resources and different opportunities. He graduated from Atlee High School and went on to attend Cornell University as an undergrad and Villanova University for law school.

"One of the biggest issues we have in Richmond Public Schools is a crisis of confidence, parents who don't want to send their young people to our schools," Robertson says. "No one wants to move out of the community they love and call home, but they have to do what's best for their young people."

An immigration lawyer who moved back to Richmond in 2013, Robertson wants to push the School Board to think outside the box with creative solutions. In Austin, Texas, for example, Title I schools operate as community centers, with social services running out of them.

"So much hinges on community and parental involvement and in our community in the East End, many parents don't have the resources to pour into their young people the way we'd like," he explains. "If we can bring the community into the schools we can start creating a stronger dynamic of engagement."

He also wants to introduce more trauma-informed care services to break the school-to-prison cycle, and "amend the memorandum of understanding to give us more flexibility" when it comes to standardized testing.

As for funding, Robertson says if elected he will push the School Board to utilize available resources in the most efficient way possible.

"I don't think the issue is just about funding, it's also about how we use the funding, making sure we're doing things in the most effective ways with the resources we have," he says. "There's very little we can do as a board other than lobby and push legislators the best way we can, so we need to be ready and willing to collaborate with the resources we already have." S

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