Kamras fields questions, concerns at community meeting

4/5/2018, 6:14 p.m.
Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras met with more than 60 parents, educators and community members from the city’s 3rd District ...

By Ronald E. Carrington

Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras met with more than 60 parents, educators and community members from the city’s 3rd District last week in the latest of his community meetings to talk about his vision for Richmond Public Schools and to listen to concerns people have about the school system.

The discussion, held March 22 at the Richmond Police Training Academy on North Side near Virginia Union University, covered topics ranging from school safety, academic performance, teacher training, school maintenance and Mr. Kamras’ newly announced cabinet members.

“As a parent, I think a lot about my boys, who are school age, and what I want for them,” Mr. Kamras said. “As superintendent, I want RPS students to have the same education I want for my children.”

Mr. Kamras, who took the helm of RPS on Feb. 1, told the group about his 100-day plan focusing on engagement, equity and excellence in the schools. He said he has visited all but one of the 44 schools in the city, noting that he found students to be bright and welcoming and saying that he had many frank conversations with teachers and school administrators.

When an audience member asked how the superintendent can ensure that dollars earmarked for the schools from the city meals tax hike that goes into effect July 1 won’t be diverted for other city projects such as replacement of the Richmond Coliseum, Mr. Kamras was direct.

“I will chain myself to the Coliseum to make sure that those dollars do not go there,” Mr. Kamras said, as the audience members chuckled and applauded.

“Those of you who have not been able to visit some of our facilities, they are crumbling. There are bathrooms without stall doors, ceilings failing down,” he said. “No child should have to go to a school in those conditions in the one of the richest countries in the world.”

He said he wants to review the line items in the RPS’ budget so he can see where the dollars are going.

“We can probably be using the money we have more effectively,” Mr. Kamras said. “We have 80 vacancies that have not been filled for the last two years, and we can redirect that money to be used in other areas.”

The audience responded with applause.

He continued by noting that the poor condition of the city’s aging school buildings is a moral, ethical, and economic issue that has to be addressed by the city and the School Board. He said people in the community will be able to see the RPS budget on the school system’s website, www.rvaschools.net.

The 1.5 percent hike in the Richmond meals tax will raise $9 million a year that will allow the city to borrow $150 million for the construction of four new school and renovation of several others during the next five years.

Another audience member asked if student achievement is a way to judge teacher performance. Mr. Kamras responded that student achievement is just one element in determining whether teachers are doing a good job. “The administration should look at an appropriate measure of student achievement as part of a larger picture when determining teacher performance,” he said.

He added that schools and teachers should see children growing and that there are appropriate and fair ways of measuring that growth.

An audience member questioned 3rd District School Board member Kenya Gibson, who attended the community meeting, about why she voted against hiring four new cabinet members for Mr. Kamras’ administration.

The vote, taken during the March 19 School Board meeting, resulted in a 5-4 approval of Mr. Kamras’ new hires.

Ms. Gibson said her concern was not about the new hires, but their salaries. Three of the four – the chief academic officer, the chief of schools and the chief of operations—will have annual salaries of $180,547, while the fourth, the chief engagement officer, will be paid $175,250 a year.

“I think that I am incredibly optimistic about what the board and the administration will be able to accomplish,” Ms. Gibson told the questioner. “And I am not against the cabinet by any measure, but I do think that the salaries are too high.”

Mr. Kamras stated previously that the new cabinet structure reduces the team from nine to six members, which will save RPS $200,000 annually. Those dollars, he said, will be redirected to support RPS’ academic curriculum.

Two community and school advocates told Mr. Kamras of their concerns about the safety of children crossing streets to reach Stuart Elementary School on Fendall Avenue. They said they have tried to get the crosswalks and the word “SCHOOL” repainted on the pavement for several years. They also want the flashing school sign to be lowered so that it will be more visible to motorists.

“These are Public Works issues that affect the schools,” Mr. Kamras said, adding that he will get the information to that city department as soon as possible so the issues can be fixed.

Cell phone access in the classroom was a hot-button issue for this group. Mr. Kamras was asked if cell phones can be prohibited in schools because they distract students.

“That would be a consideration because we hear from our teachers that cell phones are a distraction,” Mr. Kamras responded. “However, I think we would have to ask our students to be leaders on that effort.“