Who’s running RPS superintendent search?

7/28/2017, 5:59 a.m.
Who is controlling the future of Richmond Public Schools? In a school system with a high poverty, predominantly African-American student ...

By Saraya Wintersmith

Who is controlling the future of Richmond Public Schools?

In a school system with a high poverty, predominantly African-American student population, the new search committee charged with identifying superintendent candidates to lead RPS is being guided, in part, by some of the city’s most influential corporate personalities.

The Richmond School Board Superintendent Search Committee held its first meeting Tuesday morning in one of Dominion Energy’s scenic conference rooms overlooking the James River. There, the energy company’s chief executive officer, Thomas F. Farrell II, announced he would preside over the committee as chairman.

He then repeatedly reminded fellow committee members about the importance of discretion throughout the search process, and collected one-page confidentiality vows from each of the members present.

The Rev. Ben Campbell, founder and former pastoral director of Richmond Hill and a member of the search committee, acknowledged after the meeting that having monied, corporate leadership on the superintendent search panel can provide for suspicious optics. But he told reporters that the “threat of control” by Richmond’s largely white corporate leadership must be balanced with the need to garner additional resources for the school district.

“The really important thing here is for everyone to pitch in and get the kind of resources we need to make inner-city Richmond a place where even children coming from very distressed backgrounds have a chance to succeed,” he said. “That’s going to take resources that are not currently applied.”

Rev. Campbell, who is listed as vice chairman of the Richmond Public Schools Education Foundation, pointed to what he calls a public education rule of thumb — that a child surrounded by highly concentrated poverty is more expensive to educate.

Given that, he said, RPS needs people “who represent the economics of the metropolitan city and the private sources of wealth” to help tackle problems within the school system that demand economic support.

He said he believes the committee is diverse and that, ultimately, the School Board will make the final choice of a superintendent “safely and without undue influence from the white business community, but with their help.”

Mr. Farrell told the group that he was asked to lead the search committee by School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page. He said he was honored to be asked. He held the same volunteer position nearly a decade ago during the search that ended with the hiring of Dr. Yvonne Brandon as RPS superintendent.

Asked Tuesday evening about the chairmanship and corporate influence over the committee, Ms. Page told the Free Press that Mr. Farrell volunteered for the position.

She said the committee “represents all our stakeholders,” and stated repeatedly that all members of the search group serve “at the will of the board.”

Speaking to the Free Press via email, Mr. Farrell admitted he’s not uniquely qualified to lead the committee, saying “many others” on the 27-member group are capable of handling the job.

He maintained, however, that everyone, including the corporate community, has a stake in the school district’s success.

“Dominion Energy has over 5,000 employees in the Richmond region,” Mr. Farrell said after the hourlong meeting ended. “Many of them and their families live in the city. All of us in Central Virginia have a vested interest in the success of each student who attends Richmond Public Schools.”

At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, committee member William H. Goodwin Jr., retired chairman of CCA Industries and Riverstone Group LLC, which owns The Jefferson hotel in Downtown and other luxury resorts in Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee, chimed in, noting that he could obtain money from the private sector if additional compensation would help the committee “get to another tier of candidates” for superintendent.

Mr. Goodwin also suggested reaching out to past candidates for RPS superintendent.

Mr. Farrell responded with a terse reminder to Mr. Goodwin: “We’re in an open meeting. Just remember that.”