High hopes

4/28/2017, 5:42 p.m.

We had high hopes for great improvement in Richmond Public Schools when Dr. Dana T. Bedden took over as superintendent in January 2014. He sounded the right themes, as though he understood the array of problems facing our city school system. And he seemed to have the energy, skills and experience to get the schools on the right track.

But we, like many people, have soured on Dr. Bedden’s performance in the ensuing three years. And we, like the Richmond School Board, believe it is time for him and RPS to part ways.

During his three years at the helm, there have been numerous red flags, each showing a growing lack of commitment by Dr. Bedden to Richmond and to the city’s 24,000 public school students.

The first warning was Dr. Bedden’s desire — and intention — to bail just a year into his contract. Word got out that he was a finalist for the superintendent’s job in Boston.

That was the first mistake. In love, as in employment, if someone really wants to go, let them go. Instead, hundreds of Richmonders signed a petition begging Dr. Bedden to stay in the “Better with Bedden” movement. At the time, he was the highest paid superintendent in city history with a base pay of $228,000, yet he was ready to go.

Other signals followed, including his seeking to take an adjunct teaching position at Virginia State University.

Each instance signaled that the problems in Richmond were either too much for Dr. Bedden or that he had little interest in devoting the time and attention required to fix them.

The result: Continued excuses and rationalizations on why RPS progress was slow or slipping.

The school system spends more money per student than peer districts and has a disproportionately high-need student population, Dr. Bedden has said. It has a high share of students who are economically disadvantaged. More than three out of four students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 40 percent live below the poverty line and 18 percent have special needs. Combined with budget constraints, with state funding stuck at 2009 levels, improvement would be slow at best, he told the Free Press recently.

Tell us something we don’t know. Dr. Bedden almost sounds like President Trump vis-à-vis his attempt to eliminate Obamacare: “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

In the three years under Dr. Bedden’s watch, the number of fully accredited schools in Richmond has increased from 11 to 17 out of 44. Still, fewer than half of all schools in the city are fully accredited by the state.

Dr. Bedden may have gained the sympathy and support of the previous School Board, which unfortunately extended for two years his contract that would have expired two months from now in June. But the new School Board is ready to embrace change at the top.

We still don’t know what caused the tipping point for the board. Was it Dr. Bedden hiding $8.3 million from the board? A federal civil rights investigation into disparate discipline policies in Richmond Public Schools? A March report showing once again the lack of student progress? Or his public statement that he planned to stay in Richmond while he really may have sent his résumé out for other jobs?

We expect to hear details soon from the board beyond, “It was a mutual decision.”

But we are pleased with the outcome of this mutual decision. We believe the cost of Dr. Bedden’s leaving — a likely buyout of a portion of his remaining contract? — will be worth it so that Richmond Public Schools can move onward and upward.

We believe the School Board can find the right person with the right skills, genuine interest and true commitment to lead a system with dedicated teachers and children who wake up each morning and come to school each day with the positives and negatives of their own lives, all the while shouldering the community’s expectation that they are there to teach and to learn.

Finding the right superintendent is a tough decision for a new board, but one we believe Richmond’s School Board can make with success.