The Richmond School Board has new leadership.
A divided board on Monday elected Linda Owen of the 9th District as the body’s chairwoman and Cheryl Burke of the 7th District as vice chairwoman, bringing two former educators into the top posts on a board whose nine members are now in their final year together.
“I accept this with great humility and I hope going forward that I will do the job that I have been chosen to do with the best possible outcome,” Owen said after the vote. “I appreciate all of my colleagues on this board.”
Owen and Burke are staunch supporters of Superintendent Jason Kamras, whom they approved as schools chief in November 2017 and who is now in his second year leading the ailing school system.
The two were elected in consecutive 7-2 votes. Kenya Gibson of the 3rd District and Patrick Sapini of the 5th District voted against the appointments.
Gibson said after the vote that she was concerned with Owen’s handling of the budget process — last year Owen was among members of the board who approved a budget without making it public — and with Burke’s handling of the Coliseum redevelopment project. Last year, Burke and a pastor asked a Richmond judge to quash a referendum — which the city’s registrar ultimately said didn’t have enough signatures — that could have stymied the project currently before the City Council.
“I remain optimistic that we will move forward and do right by our kids,” Gibson said.
Said Sapini: “I am concerned and fearful ... that we will have much more of the same as the previous leadership.”
The board’s previous leadership — Dawn Page of the 8th District and Liz Doerr of the 1st District — also are supporters of the superintendent.
Page served as chairwoman during each of the board’s first three years together, which included the hiring of Kamras and getting the money to build three new schools. Page and Doerr also oversaw a contentious rezoning process last year that resulted in few changes to school boundaries.
“I fully support the change of leadership,” Page said. “The decisions that we make in the leadership [have] always been in the best interest of our children.”
Kamras said the administration is “thrilled and excited” to work with Owen and Burke.
The chair and vice chair of the board are still voting members. Leadership responsibilities include setting the meeting agenda, representing the board at official functions and presiding over board meetings, among other things.
Owen, a retired teacher and librarian, and Burke, a retired principal at Chimborazo Elementary School, will lead the board ahead of the November elections, when all nine seats are up for grabs. The district is implementing a five-year turnaround plan and is set to change the names of four schools, including the three being rebuilt.
The board’s first public hearing for a new name for George Mason Elementary was Monday inside the school’s auditorium. The school is currently named for the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as a basis for the U.S. Bill of Rights. He owned roughly 100 slaves throughout his life, according to the website for Gunston Hall, Mason’s 18th-century mansion near the Potomac River.
Kamras said last year that Mason’s slave ownership “disqualifies him from the honor of having one of our schools named after him.”
Members of the public on Monday offered up name suggestions including Church Hill for the neighborhood the school is in; Henry Marsh for the civil rights lawyer; and Barbara Johns for the student who led the Prince Edward County strike that helped lead to school desegregation.
One, though, raised issue with changing the name at all.
“It’s [political correctness] gone amok,” said community member Michael Werner.
The next public hearing for the George Mason name is scheduled for Jan. 27.