A new superintendent. Widespread academic and business problems. Cheating on tests at an elementary school.

Richmond Public Schools again had a busy year dealing with systemic administrative issues. The new administration, led by former Washington, D.C., Public Schools executive Jason Kamras, has attributed the challenges to past leadership.

“I know it’s going to take some time to get things right, but I’m confident that we are moving in the right direction,” said School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page.

The board will hold its first 2019 meeting Jan. 7 and will appoint its leadership for the coming year.

Before then, though, here’s a look back — in no particular order — at the Richmond School Board and RPS in 2018.

New leadership

There’s a new chief in town.

After being named as Dana Bedden’s successor in November 2017, Kamras started as superintendent in February. The 45-year-old is a former National Teacher of the Year who went on to work as a central office administrator in D.C.

The highest-paid superintendent in Richmond history also served as an education policy adviser to Barack Obama during his successful 2008 presidential campaign. Kamras’ most recent role in Washington — after about a decade of teaching — was as the transitional chief of the office of equity.

His contract with RPS runs through June 30, 2021. He makes $250,000 per year.

Kamras chose not to retain members of the district’s Cabinet, including Tommy Kranz, who was the interim superintendent before Kamras started the job.

Instead, Kamras has brought in five outsiders in a new Cabinet structure that went from nine members to six. The sixth leader — a chief talent officer — has not been hired.

The new leadership team has:

  • Michelle Hudacsko, chief of staff;
  • Harry Hughes, chief of schools;
  • Darin Simmons Jr., chief operating officer;
  • Tracy Epp, chief academic officer; and
  • Shadae Thomas Harris, chief engagement officer.

The Cabinet appointments met some opposition from the School Board, with members wary of the $177,924 average salary the new leaders are being paid. The average salary for individual members of the former Cabinet was $141,646.

Taxes

Kamras came to Richmond as the city was in the middle of a battle over whether to raise the meals tax to pay for new schools construction.

The superintendent quickly got on board with Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal, which ultimately received City Council approval. A $10 meal in the city that would have cost $11.13 after state and local taxes now costs $11.28.

The higher meals tax is projected to generate $9.1 million annually in new revenue, allowing the city to borrow $150 million to pay for the building of three new schools — George Mason elementary, E.S.H. Greene Elementary and a new middle school on Hull Street Road. Those schools are set to open in the fall of 2020.

After the City Council approved the meals tax increase, the body killed an effort to implement a cigarette tax that would pay for school maintenance.

“It’s hard being a public official, but what I’ve found is by and large, our public officials are people of good conscience and are working hard to do right for the city and the state,” Kamras said when he first took over. “Sometimes, we disagree about how to do that, but that’s democracy. I like the messiness of democracy and making our case for RPS and for Richmond.”

The third tax proposal came directly from the superintendent, a pitch for a 10-cent increase to the city’s property tax rate to $1.30 per $100 of assessed value. The plan would add $247 to the annual tax bill for the average home in Richmond, which is assessed at $247,000.

City Council members, who have the authority to raise taxes, quickly shot down the idea.

All three tax proposals came after Richmond voters passed a ballot measure on Election Day 2017 saying that Stoney needed to present a school facilities improvement plan without raising taxes or say it can’t be done.

On Dec. 20, he issued a proposal that would provide $800 million for school capital projects over 20 years.

School safety

The biggest story in education across the country this year was school safety, with 2017-18 being the deadliest academic year for school shootings in recent decades.

While there were no school shootings in the Richmond area, there were still threats that evacuated schools and widespread protests. On the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Fla., shooting, which killed 17 people, thousands of Richmond-area students walked out of school to protest gun violence.

“There are so many things we can do and this is just the start,” Emmaline Clark, a sophomore at Richmond Community High School, said on the day of the walkout.

“School is a place for learning,” said India Williams, a sophomore at Armstrong High School. “We should not be worried if we are going to die that day.”

Administrative issues

The district faced a litany of administrative problems this year.

A parent, Betsy Milburn, revealed that the district had inadvertently lowered some students’ grade point averages. For at least four years, students in dual-enrollment courses were receiving 5 points in their GPA calculation rather than the 6 points School Board policy said they should have received. The same thing happened for International Baccalaureate students.

At the same time, the district wasn’t enforcing a policy saying that students with more than six unexcused absences per nine weeks and 10 per semester in a particular class not get credit for that class — regardless of grade. The School Board elected to suspend the policy a month before graduation, allowing more than 400 seniors to not have their GPAs lowered, which could have put their graduation at risk.

The School Board ultimately changed its attendance policy so students are now allowed to miss no more than 18 school days per year or 18 class periods of a course — regardless of whether they’re excused or unexcused. This year, fewer RPS students are missing too much school, according to data presented to the board in November.

A state audit released in November found that more than 1,000 Richmond students received credit for high school courses when they shouldn’t have. The district appealed to the state with waivers saying the students shouldn’t have to lose those credits, but the Virginia Department of Education — with guidance from the attorney general’s office — rejected the plea.

While the issues go back to at least the 2015-16 school year, the district does not plan on rescinding diplomas given to graduates and will not review former students’ transcripts.

The state found that school bell schedules didn’t meet the numbers of hours required by the state. Some students were awarded two credits when they should have received one. Other students received credit for taking the same class multiple times and for taking classes not approved by the School Board.

Some middle school students took high school-level classes and received credit when those classes weren’t eligible for credit by the state.

In total, 22 problems were found with transcripts from the sample the state reviewed.

The Kamras administration has blamed the GPA, attendance and credit woes on the previous administration.

“If I was aware of an issue, I took actions or gave directives to address the issue,” Bedden, the school system’s superintendent before Kamras, said in an August email.

Bedden now runs the Boyertown Area School District, a 6,878-student school system in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Carver cheating

George W. Carver Elementary School became a National Blue Ribbon school for its strong performance on state accountability tests, but a state investigation found that a cheating ring at the school improperly helped students on those tests.

The VDOE released its findings in July on Carver, a school where more than 95 percent of the student population lives in poverty. VDOE found that some teachers would help students if they raised their hand or would give indications to students of whether items were correct or incorrect, among other things.

Eleven Carver educators, including acclaimed Principal Kiwana Yates, were named in the report. Of the 11, all but two have left the district.

The U.S. Department of Education rescinded the school’s Blue Ribbon status because of the irregularities.

The school is now being led by Tiawana Giles, previously an assistant principal in RPS.

Obama Elementary

A school once named for a Confederate general is now named for the first black U.S. president.

The School Board voted in June to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School, located in the city’s North Side, to Barack Obama Elementary School. The idea of renaming the school met little pushback from the Richmond schools community, members of which suggested renaming the school after a local historical figure or the neighborhood.

Kamras ultimately recommended naming it for Obama, and the School Board signed off. The move was paid for by selling T-shirts.

Board members have tasked the administration with reviewing other district school names and will report back to the body in 2019. Representatives for the three new schools set to open in 2020 have all expressed interest in having the schools open with new names.

Stagnant accreditation

A new accreditation system rolled out by the state this year helped the city’s peer districts, but the number of city schools meeting the full standards of accreditation stayed the same as last year.

Across the state, 92 percent of public schools were accredited this year, up from 86 percent last year. About 3 in 5 Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth schools were fully accredited last year under the old system that focused almost entirely on how students fared on Standards of Learning tests. This year, the figure inched closer to 7 in 10.

In Richmond, just 19 of the city’s 44 schools met the state’s full standards — the same number as 2017.

The accreditation ratings now take into account growth, achievement gaps and absenteeism, among other things.

Kamras has set the goal of having every school in the district accredited in five years, something that’s a focal point of the district’s strategic plan, which the School Board approved in September.

Critical audits

As part of Kamras’ 100-Day Plan, the superintendent ordered an audit of equity in the district and its business operations. The results painted a dim picture of the current state of the district.

The audits were done by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools and The Education Trust. The former focused on finances and found gaps in central office organization and leadership.

“Departments suffer from inertia by ‘doing the same thing, in the same way, with the same results’ without any sense of resolve to change,” the report said.

In the other audit, The Education Trust found major inequities in the district’s academics, ranging from suspension rates that disproportionately affect students of color to white students having better access to advanced courses.

In the months since the audit was released, the administration and board members have vowed to right the ship.

Teacher of the Year

Richmond has the state’s best teacher.

Rodney Robinson, a history teacher at Virgie Binford Education Center, housed within Richmond’s juvenile detention center, was named the 2019 Virginia Teacher of the Year during an October ceremony at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He became the first teacher in the city to win the honor since 2011.

“My students are the most vulnerable kids in society. They have succumbed to the pressure of urban living and made mistakes that they are paying for, but they still persevere and strive for success,” Robinson said moments after the announcement. “I will fight to my last heartbeat for them.”

As a black male teacher, Robinson is part of a group that represents just 2 percent of public school teachers in the country, according to the federal Education Department. Virginia is one of six states that don’t mandate data collection on teacher race and ethnicity.

The Virginia State University graduate is a 19-year veteran of RPS.

Robinson will represent Virginia in the National Teacher of the Year competition. Only two Virginia teachers have won that title, and none has done so since 1998.

7th District election

The makeup of the School Board will remain the same going into next year.

Retired Chimborazo Elementary School Principal Cheryl Burke retained her seat on the board in a November special election. Burke received 52 percent of the vote in the 7th District race, beating community organizer Gary Broderick and immigration lawyer Bryce Robertson.

Burke was appointed to the seat in October 2017 after Nadine Marsh-Carter resigned from her seat on the board following the unexpected death of her husband. She’s been a strong supporter of Kamras.

On Election Day, Burke’s campaign distributed illegal sample ballots and made replacement ballots at a school in the 7th District.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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