CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Richmond School Board remains divided over its handling of next year’s budget, a tension on full display at Saturday’s retreat an hour away from the city.
The group spent the majority of its five-hour session at the Virginia School Boards Association in Charlottesville discussing issues of trust among its nine members, pointing to a budget process that brought widespread public criticism after the board approved a financial plan before releasing it to the public.
Third District representative Kenya Gibson called the board’s handling of the budget — which includes cuts totaling $13 million while asking for an extra $18 million in other areas — an “embarrassment.”
“The process was lacking,” Gibson told her colleagues. “We can do better.”
That process started in January when Superintendent Jason Kamras, navigating his first full budget season as head of the district, unveiled a spending plan that cuts a fifth of the school system’s roughly 250-person central office. The budget also included a disinvestment in the MathScience Innovation Center, a longtime regional teaching hub, while requesting $18 million more in recurring funding, among other things.
The board debated the plan during five budget-specific meetings and two regular meetings, but the public was closed off for part of those deliberations as the School Board and district leaders cited policy saying discussion on personnel was to happen in closed session.
When it came time to vote on Feb. 25, a divided board approved the budget. The document the board was privy to before the vote, though, was not made public — an apparent violation of the board’s own policy and state open records law — until two days after the vote.
Kamras continued to defend the decision Saturday, saying again that in his view the budget could be kept private because it includes personnel information.
A minority of the board had attempted to release the specific jobs on the chopping block before voting on the budget.
The lingering disagreement over the board’s handling of the budget is the latest example of a once-united board growing farther apart the longer it gets into its four-year tenure.
“I know no one has a good taste in their mouth about it,” said Liz Doerr, the vice chairwoman of the board, on the budget process.
Said 4th District representative Jonathan Young: “That constituted a big misstep.”
In the board’s first year together in 2017, it unanimously hired Kamras as superintendent, a move members said was a new chapter for the district. The union started to slip away several months after Kamras took over when the board narrowly approved Kamras’ leadership team, with dissenters raising concern over the team’s salaries, which exceed the former Cabinet’s individual salaries.
It continued over the course of last year, but has come to a head this year with the re-election of Dawn Page as chairwoman — in a 5-4 vote — and with the disagreement over the budget.
“As someone who supports the superintendent, I feel like I’m on the defensive all the time,” Doerr said.
Said Page: “This negative energy is taking us down.”
Both Page and Doerr, in their first year as board leadership together, voted for the budget and against releasing the job titles before the vote.
Members of the minority said their opinions aren’t always being heard.
“Every School Board member has to feel valued, and that is not the case,” said Felicia Cosby, who represents the 6th District.
After each board member had explained why they don’t trust one another, Kamras finished the unplanned exercise, which brought several board members to tears.
“I remain optimistic,” he said. “I honestly believe we can do great things together.”
The board meets again at 6 p.m. Monday in the School Board Room on the 17th floor of City Hall.