Former Education Compact member Amy Wentz respond’s to last week’s editorial by Willie Hilliard, offering reasons why she believes Richmond Public Schools should renew Superintendent Jason Kamras’s contract for four years.
Well, well, well. Here we are again, Richmond Public Schools stakeholders: emotional, anxious, and exercising our thumbs in yet another high stakes debate. We are already stressed about the national political climate, the pandemic, injustice, and just ensuring our families are stable, but now we are adding to the long list of heated disagreements before this, like rezoning, facilities planning, toilet paper, meals tax, school closure/consolidation, and ultimately what is or isn’t best for students. What can I say? We are passionate about schools, sometimes to our own detriment.
First, I want to express that these are my thoughts. My thoughts are not more important or to be held at a higher regard than any others and it’s perfectly OK to disagree with me or counter with information of your own. Either way, the decision around Jason Kamras’ contract is now up to our new School Board, so don’t let it give you heart palpitations. Take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. OK. Now you can continue reading.
I’m going to make this easy, with just a rebuttal to the Op-Ed RPS Alumnus/Parent, Education Compact Member and Community Advocate Willie Hilliard submitted the other day in RVA Mag. Why? Because I share all of these titles with him and it’s important that fellow stakeholders can learn from different perspectives and viewpoints. (We have something else in common, but who really wants to bring that up again? Lol) I graduated from Huguenot High School in the late 90’s. My oldest graduated from RPS in 2016, and my youngest is a first Grader at JL Francis.
Speaking to Willie’s assertion that “Mr. Kamras has brought a top-down approach to our community, caring more about corporate interests than including all of Richmond’s students, families, and teachers in the future of their schools.” Mr. Kamras has had a solid track record of using an extremely collaborative approach to his leadership. From my view, we have never seen the amount of grassroots partnerships, black led organizations, listening sessions, engagement opportunities and ways to give input and be heard that we have had these past three years. This is not something that should be reduced to unimportant. Consideration and compassion speak to culture, and that overwhelmingly matters to parents.
Willie says, “RPS students do benefit from stability during a pandemic, and therefore, Mr. Kamras’s contract should be renewed for two years. However, we should expect more of our public servants than using a pandemic to leverage for more, especially as Richmonders have, for the past three years, used our public dollars to pay him over five times the median Richmond salary.” Students benefit from stability in general. Not just during a pandemic. A two-year contract does not provide that. Anecdotally, the urban districts that are generally lifted up as some of the strongest examples of continuous improvement over the past 20 or 30 years had superintendents with nearly decade-long tenures, such as Carl Cohn in Long Beach, CA, or Thomas Payzant in Boston. Regarding salaries, I remember when Kim Gray was running for Mayor, she had a similar grievance, and Politico did a fact check. Also, here is some information on Mr. Kamras’s predecessor’s salary. And it’s important to note with the raises RPS has enacted since then, his predecessor would be making $254,209, more than Mr. Kamras, who has not taken any of these raises, makes now. To present additional context, in surrounding counties, Chesterfield County’s Superintendent Salary makes $217,726; Henrico County’s Superintendent makes $221,000.
“Mr. Kamras initially pushed for school reopening, but brave RPS families and teachers organized and spoke in no uncertain terms that reopening schools was not acceptable. It was the power of the people that forced Jason Kamras to acknowledge that a majority of his schools would be empty and unstaffed if he pushed to reopen schools,” says Willie. This isn’t even a reach; it’s totally false. He LED the NATION in quickly announcing that schools should and would close. Mr. Kamras closed schools before even the Governor made the decision to do so and was the first to extend the closure to go all the way through spring break. He has also been concerned about very high-need students and initially advocated for providing them with some in-person instruction in the fall, but ultimately recommended to the School Board that RPS open the 2020-21 school year virtually. Lastly, Mr. Kamras recommended that RPS remain virtual for the second semester while other districts have been opening and closing, causing incredible instability for families. Shout out to the power of the people, but when you can’t even give credit when it’s due, that’s a problem.
From Willie’s perspective: “But instead of bringing the community together, Jason Kamras has caused division and conflict, making decisions behind closed doors and bringing many highly-paid C-suite officers from Washington, DC. Even more divisive is his demand to receive a four-year contract or he will leave.” What evidence is there that Kamras has “caused division and conflict”? On the contrary, he seems to be working incredibly hard to bring the RPS community together. OK, he brought with him three colleagues. Fair, but isn’t that a sign of an effective leader? That people would want to uproot and move to work with someone? Also, these members of the Leadership team aren’t from DC: Sandra Lee, Chief Talent Officer; Shadae Harris, Chief Engagement Officer; Tracy Epp, Chief Academic Officer; and soon to be: Alana Agosto Gonzalez, Chief Operating Officer.
Willie asserts, “The only path to lasting school improvement is real partnership — not a series of backroom deals led by corporate interests that seek to reduce the public’s voice in our schools.” I actually agree and believe there has been real partnership. What backroom deals, Willie? Your associates list none in the reference document.
Another part reads, “In districts across the country, we have seen that divisive turnaround strategies can temporarily boost test scores while sowing the seeds of division. When superintendents move on to their next job, they leave communities with less ownership of their schools and no sustainable, shared, lasting commitment — the commitment that research shows leads to the deep change that our students and teachers deserve. And at this point, due to the pandemic and the cancellations of SOLs, we lack even the barest of abilities to judge the Superintendent’s performance while he fights for a four-year contract.” I feel like this is actually an argument against your write up. He’s showing us he wants a sustainable and lasting commitment. Also, is it not contradictory to hold up SOLs as support for this argument? Let’s all fight to cancel SOLs but then use it as leverage against our Superintendent’s contract?
“Black and Latinx communities are the most likely to have change done to them instead of with them. More than 80 percent of the students in Richmond’s public schools are not white. We reject approaches that are not led with the people most impacted, especially when we see alarming evidence of declining graduation rates in certain RPS cohorts.” OK, Willie, here is our Graduation Data from VDOE. A few points to note: Class of 2018 (Mr. Kamras arrived in February of that year): 75.4 percent. Class of 2019, the year in which Kamras ended unethical practices that were artificially inflating rates, was 70.7 percent. Class of 2020 is 71.6 percent, and we are moving back UP ethically. Do we want to see greater numbers? Absolutely. Give him a chance!
Willie says, “Time and time again, Jason Kamras has managed our public schools from behind closed doors. Instead of building strong public support for education through transparency and shared responsibility, the Kamras administration has made decisions in secret in violation of open meeting laws, hidden information that should be publicly available, and even restricted people’s ability to openly criticize the district.” Speaking to the resource linked, Mr. Kamras is on record not wanting to put the names of the cut employees out in public, as he thought doing so would be disrespectful. The democratically elected School Board voted to proceed without sharing the names. This was not a unilateral action by Mr. Kamras. I mean, Richmond will openly criticize any and everything. We aren’t a shy bunch at all, so I’m not sure I follow on that part. In transparency, I did not agree with the removal of these positions, but wanted to speak on the “secret meeting” referenced.
“The Kamras administration fought against reporting teacher retention data as part of the Dreams4RPS Strategic plan,” Willie says. I’ve seen this stated before, but it’s just not true. The Administration asked UVA to calculate teacher retention using agreed-upon common definitions and statistical analysis so that there is uniformity across all years of reporting. To read the administrations 87-page summary of how each goal is calculated, click here. UVA produces this data, in a partnership with the state, with about a year lag. The Administration did not fight against reporting the data, they just did not have it yet from UVA. And when they did get it, they reported it, and teacher retention was flat year over year. I’ll add that I agree that teacher retention needs added attention. I’ll also add that teacher and staff satisfaction was up 5 percent year over year. Also,the 2018 Promise and Equity Audit was never funded by the Board, so that’s not on him. Let’s give this a push in this year’s budget cycle.
“Kamras is working for corporations and his personal networks, not our kids.” OK, many of our RPS teachers got their start with Teach for America. Is this something that has to negatively follow them for the rest of their careers? Here’s a list of non-evil people who are associated with TFA that went on to do good things. On his two years with the Broad Academy: This is a widely respected program and it’s unfair to associate some of its graduates to Mr. Kamras. If anything, he’s worked in the opposite direction in his time in Richmond. On Great Minds: The democratically elected School Board approved the contract with Great Minds for a math curriculum that is the most widely used in the United States. As far as Navy Hill: The only time Mr. Kamras did or said anything related to Navy Hill was acknowledging, alongside School Board Chair (at the time) Dawn Page, the Mayor’s commitment to give half of all revenues to schools. Should he have stayed out of it? I can agree on that. But is that working for corporations? Nah.
“Jason Kamras’s ties to corporations mean he won’t stand up to demand that they contribute to funding our schools through a higher corporate tax rate. The residents of Richmond should not be asked to bear the cost of schools alone when the corporate tax rate hasn’t been raised for 40 years, but Jason Kamras will not fight for fair funding.” We all know the Superintendent of schools has no control over our corporate tax rate. As the kids say, bruhhh! There are endless examples of Mr. Kamras fighting for our school district. Here, here, here, here, and here. In fact, he has supported every single tax increase proposed by the state and city for increased school funding.
“Kamras has not supported teachers or effective instruction, and we all know that the most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of their teachers.” In this section, Willie mentions the chosen curriculum, but it’s important to note that both were approved by the School Board, are highly respected, and were selected by a panel of RPS teachers. If the majority of teachers don’t agree with the decisions the panel made, let’s address that, but to imply that the collective decision means he’s unsupportive is unsubstantiated. As far as the “failed practices of Washington DC,” an independent study by UVA found that Kamras’s work in DCPS led to increases in teacher quality and student achievement. Assessing these practices is fair, but regardless how we feel about it, Mr. Kamras has not instituted any such program in Richmond.
I don’t want this to go to a fifth page, so I’ll get to the bottom line. We say that we want systemic and structural change, but to do so, we must understand and commit to doing this work for the long haul. Mr. Kamras came on board in February of 2018. That’s only one complete instructional year to assess before the pandemic hit and we were forced into a virtual environment. This is how we sound: “FIX OUR SCHOOLS! But you can’t adjust the curriculum, you can’t adjust teacher schedules, you can’t hire your own staff, you can’t adjust the calendar.” The way we fix schools is to be honest in our assessments. If you can’t even give credit where it’s due and have to inflate the facts to make your points, it’s a disservice to students. Let’s identify what we are getting wrong, and work with our school board to put the right measures in place to hold our Superintendent accountable. We can’t just continue to throw the whole thing away every few years.
Kamras has worked tirelessly to elevate our voices:
- held over 170 community meetings for the strategic plan
- launched five Advisory Councils: Students, Teachers, Families, Principals, and School Reopening
- launched RPS en Vivo weekly livestream for Spanish-speaking families
- launched RPS en Espanol Facebook page for Spanish-speaking families
- launched RPS Live! weekly livestream for English-speaking families
- appears weekly on the Gary Flowers show
- appears weekly on Radio Poder with Oscar Contreras
- appears weekly on Miss Clovia
- has conducted hundreds of school visits, living room meetings, and community walks
- answers every email from everyone – no matter who you are
I have to take into account the good with the bad:
- tackling the Carver scandal that existed well before he arrived
- tackling the transcript and graduation scandal that existed well before he arrived
- tackling rezoning
- creating a strategic plan with the community that was unanimously approved by the School Board – and actually implementing it
- partnering with the Mayor and Council to increase RPS funding significantly
- establishing a much better relationship with the VDOE
- hiring many new principals with a focus on instructional leadership.
Every superintendent knows that anything less than a full contract is a vote of no confidence from a School Board. When Superintendent Cashwell had two full years left on her contract (Mr. Kamras has a few months), Henrico pre-emptively extended her contract two more years, in effect giving her a six-year contract. Why did they do so? As the RTD reported: “’We wanted to show our confidence in her,’ School Board Chairman Roscoe Cooper said after Thursday’s meeting. ‘We had the authority to do it, so we did it.’” Let’s show confidence in Mr. Kamras with a four-year contract, then work with our school board to ensure we add accountability measures towards our challenges.
Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect RVA Mag editorial policy.
Top Photo via RVASchools.net