On March 20th, a group of UR undergraduate and professional studies students had the opportunity to attend the Richmond City School Board meeting hosted at MLK Middle School. The school board excursion was sponsored by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and URGov so students could learn more about the local education system in Richmond and get insight into how policy is made and deliberated.
During the excursion, UR attendees first received an overview of the school board’s responsibilities from distinguished professor and lawyer Wendell Roberts, who has extensive experience in education policy in his home state of Pennsylvania. Students then had the opportunity to ask questions before the meeting began, where much was discussed on the recent budget proposal and funding mechanisms for Richmond Public Schools (RPS). Conversations also centered around the school board’s lack of authority to raise funds on their own along with the political ramifications of giving the city council significant influence over the school district budget. According to Roberts, the Richmond City School Board cannot raise funds via property taxes to support its budget, which can handicap its policy-making capabilities.
After discussions, students filed into the auditorium and listened to the public comment period of the school board meeting, in which teachers and members of the public expressed their frustration over a variety of issues. Some parents shared their concerns about student safety and bullying in schools, and how it has negatively impacted their children’s mental and physical well-being. Also mentioned were concerns over how to best prepare students for an increasingly changing workforce, which will be a key concern for the school district going forward.
However, the most widely discussed issue of this meeting was the recent 2-week contract cut to CTE teachers, which many teachers and staff from RPS lamented as a show of bad faith from the school board. According to a report from local news station WRIC, CTE teachers would work 2 fewer weeks out of the year under recent contract restructuring, leading to a salary cut for those impacted. One of the public concerns was the hasty way school officials implemented this policy, with little to no beforehand notice that these changes would take place. At the meeting, many spoke in solidarity with the CTE teachers and criticized district policy.
The school board meeting was just one example of the criticisms the district has received over the years. The school board has often had to address issues surrounding school safety and has disagreed with principals and school administrators over student suspensions. Recently, the School Board’s Disciplinary Committee has overturned around 90% of principal recommendations (CBS 6 Local News) for student suspensions, which has led to some frustration among school faculty and parents. While critics argue the district has not prioritized safety, some board members contend that high suspension rates only fuel the school-to-prison pipeline and thus try to find alternative approaches to correcting student conduct. Along with this issue, the district will also look to address a rising dropout rate amongst high school students along with other funding concerns in the coming years. Ultimately, RPS and many school districts across the country will have to address these critical issues as a new normal in student learning sets in. In the past few years, education policy has been in the media spotlight. Along with academic achievement deficits and learning disruption caused by the pandemic, school districts across the country have also faced controversies stemming from book banning to curriculum overhauls. To help give students more insight into the democratic process and learn more about key education issues, URGov and the CCE will continue their trips to the school board next year and connect with educators and experts in this issue area. These experiences will always be open to students from any academic background, and we hope you take advantage of these opportunities!