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GOLDMAN: Bold or blah? Richmond School Chief finalists analyzed

Paul Goldman is a local lawyer who helped run Doug Wilder's historic campaign for governor of Virginia.

Paul Goldman is a local lawyer who helped run Doug Wilder's historic campaign for governor of Virginia.

RICHMOND, Va. – As the three finalists for Richmond’s new School Chief get ready to meet the public later this week, the stage is set for a dramatic vote next week by the Richmond School Board.

Will the School Board flunk its final exam, proving themselves “all hat and not cattle” as they say in Texas? That’s a fair question given their most unimpressive first year, defined by regular controversy, not proven competence.

But there is also another equally fair question to ask. Has all the tumult and embarrassment masked their working hard behind closed doors, such work now to culminate in a great success, their finding the right person for the School Chief’s job at this crucial moment?

This too will be answered. The media tends to focus on the negative. So let’s give the School Board the benefit of the doubt right now.

Bold or Blah?

All their work has boiled down to three finalists for the job. These three Amigos – no women this time – will meet the public on Wednesday. There is far reduced public input than originally promised, but at least some interaction prior to the expected School Board vote on the winner next Monday.

All but one current Richmond School Board member ran on a promise to “shake up” the school system, saying it needed fundamental changes to provide the city’s public school children with a true 21st century education.

As they conclude a first controversial year, the only “moving and shaking” has been a couple of dust-ups between the members themselves, mostly verbal but on at least one occasion physical.

But having been in politics long enough, I have learned to enjoy the “drama,” but keep my focus on the outcome. Process is important, and we need to fight for the best one possible.

But even the best process doesn’t guarantee the best or even a good result. In theory the better the process, the better the result, surely on an aggregate basis over time.

However as to any one particular decision, even a flawed process can produce a real winner.

Last year’s voting results, whereby the public across the city defeated every incumbent school board member facing any competition except for noted reformer Kim Gray (when the old board voted 8-1 to continue bad policies, Kim was the 1 sensible vote) showed the people were ready for the big reforms promised by those self-described reformers.

What is the single biggest reform possible in any bureaucratic system such as the RPS?

Putting someone in charge who will dare to be a real change maker. A reform-minded board and a reform-minded Superintendent can shake things up.

Thus my Bold or Blah question. Based on the record and resume, can we expect Bold, or Blah from whomever the School Board chooses?

The three individual finalists are Dana T. Bedden, most recently from Irving, Texas, Anthony D. Jackson, from Rocky Mount, N.C., and Calvin J. Watts, from Gwinnett County, Ga.

All have doctorates, at least on paper. Bedden is a former School Superintendent and Jackson is currently serving in that position. Watts has a major administrative position in a school system far larger than Richmond.

In terms of boldness, all have the same biggest asset, they have not come up through the ranks of the Richmond Public School system.

Or put another way, they are not tied to any mistakes of the past here in the River City school district.

Given Richmond’s history, this is surely a change, indeed a needed one.

The RPS bureaucracy needs a thorough overall, a zero-based top to bottom review.

We need someone who isn’t afraid to make the hard decisions, to step on whatever toe needs stepped on.

Do any of these three have the will, much less the ability, to do what has to be done?

This is a good question, but without any possible answer.

Dr. Bedden got fired from his last Superintendent job due to a feud over his efforts to change the curriculum. But my research suggests the fight less to do with boldness, but more to due with the particulars of Texas politics in his Irving, Texas district.

Yet this still leaves open the question of whether he picked an unnecessary fight when a more conciliatory approach should have been tried. My research suggests he got out canned by Texas Tea Partiers over a dispute involving English v Spanish language classroom teaching in a mostly Latino school district. He wanted more Spanish given the school district’s population: a Tea Party revolt led by those wanting more English and less Spanish won School Board control. It was always win or lose debate: no third option.

Bedden took the Texas gig job after becoming unhappy in his then-current Superintendent’s job in a Georgia school district due to a pay dispute. That’s two straight dust-ups. So is he a reformer who won’t back down, or a hard-case who has a “my way or the high way” approach once in office?

I can’t tell from newspaper accounts. He isn’t a “potted plant” in either case. As to the others, they seem “go along to get along” guys in that regard, not likely to launch a fundamental challenge to the status quo.

Boldness conclusion: Except for being “outsiders” and “male,” their is nothing in the public record which suggests any of the three are big-time change makers capable of achieving the positive change needed in Richmond.

Is that bad however? Or put another way: Despite all the talk, is Richmond really ready for someone with real walk?

But if not on the record bold, are they fated to be blah?

Based on my research, none fit the blah category either. Each would bring a new energy to Richmond, which admittedly is a very low bar to clear.

Yet let’s face facts.

Right now, what passes for a reformer in Richmond education is someone who isn’t stuck in neutral, wheels spinning, wondering why there is no traction for progress.

This is a town where our leaders have spent roughly a decade rallying support to build a minor baseball team a new stadium because the one built in 1985 is deemed obsolete and a embarrassment to a “first-tier” city. But our Governor, our Senators, can’t get any help from the Mayor, City Council or the School Board to make an equally passionate case for why schools built in 1955 are sufficiently obsolete to require a plan to modernize them SOMETIME THIS CENTURY!

Blah conclusion — it is hard to believe any of the three will not be improvement over the status quo. How could that be possible? A low bar yes, but I have to report the truth here.

CONCLUSION

The above is a fair analysis based on the record PRIOR to the three men having a chance to meet the public later this week. The city desperately needs bold, the education status quo has actually gotten worse in recent years, not better based on state statistics [you can't trust the local ones.] This is beyond tragic.

Thus, let’s give the Richmond School Board credit for clearing the first necessary albeit it easiest: Get a new Superintendent not tied in any way to the mistakes of the past here in Richmond. This stands for bold right now: and so let’s at least put that in the win column.

The male thing? Everyone should be judged on merit, not gender or other non-merit categories. But an analyst’s job is to be honest. The fact there are three male outsider finalists is noticeable given recent history. Put me in the Yogi Berra camp: some things are too coincidental to be a coincidence.

Finally, I am trying to be open minded here, but in all honesty, I have trouble with doctorates from Online Universities. Bedden got his from Virginia Tech, the old fashioned way. The other two from Online doctoral programs with unproven academic rigor.

Perhaps I am just old-fashioned. But Online Universities are doing great damage to students who graduate from school systems like here in Richmond, this has been documented, I have written about it using data developed by the United States Senate, and comments from respected Virginia educators.

A writer has to be careful not to tarnish by using too broad a brush. Moreover these documented criticisms focus on undergraduate level and masters level stuff more than doctorate programs. But no honest journalist can simply sweep this issue under the proverbial rug.

Should it matter in terms of the Richmond School chief search? I believe it should. But to what extent?

I don’t have an answer. This is why the pay School Board members the big bucks [actually just $7 K a year and some benefits].

My gut feel right now: Lets give all three guys the benefit of the doubt coming into their final interviews with the School Board and their meeting with the public at a big forum later this week.

I fear way too much Blah and not nearly enough Bold. But the jury is still out, the School Board gets to present its finalists before an open-minded person should reach a verdict.

Bottom line: As a realist, I am not looking for much at this point. But as a concern citizen, I am looking for more than is visible on the horizon right now.

Paul Goldman is in no way affiliated with WTVR. His comments are his own, and do not reflect the views of WTVR or any related entity. Neither WTVR nor any of its employees or agents participated in any way with the preparation of Mr. Goldman’s comments.