Candidates bring ideas, passion to School Board race

10/27/2017, 6 a.m.
Four candidates are vying for the 3rd District seat on the Richmond School Board. The election is to fill the …

By Ronald E. Carrington

Four candidates are vying for the 3rd District seat on the Richmond School Board.

The election is to fill the unexpired term of Jeff Bourne, who was elected to the House of Delegates in February. In March, the School Board appointed Cindy Menz-Erb, a recent transplant from New York whose older child is in pre-kindergarten, to represent the district until the special election on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Ms. Menz-Erb, a consultant for a search firm, is being challenged by Dr. Joann Henry and Kenya J. Gibson, both of whom were among the dozen finalists who sought the board’s appointment in March.

Dr. Henry, 67, is a former Armstrong High School assistant principal who in 2010 opened the Dream Academy Richmond in North Side that helps adults obtain a high school diploma. She is the wife of Free Press reporter Jeremy Lazarus. She has two adult children who attended Richmond Public Schools. Ms. Gibson, 43, an advertising executive in health care marketing, has two children currently attending RPS.

A third challenger is Dorian O. Daniels, 35, who ran for the 3rd District City Council seat last year. The self-employed graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School and Virginia State University did not respond to Free Press requests for an interview.

In separate interviews, Ms. Menz-Erb, Dr. Henry and Ms. Gibson talked about their priorities on the School Board should they win the election. Among them, hiring a new superintendent, providing a quality public education in Richmond that rivals the surrounding counties, improving school facilities, boosting students’ access to technology, building closer relationships with parents and more partnerships with the business community.

They also agreed that RPS should have a zero-based budgeting process, a method of budgeting in which all expenses must be justified, in order to maintain fiscal accountability. It also allows top-level strategic goals to be implemented into the budgeting process by tying them to specific functional areas of the organization.

“Some of the biggest challenges and opportunities are recruiting talent, strengthening home and schools connections, including after-school activities and supporting children by using a holistic approach including strong after-school care that’s accessible and affordable with transportation supported,” Ms. Menz-Erb said.

She also said RPS’ human resources department should be revamped. “This school year started with 60 open teaching positions. That is not acceptable. Some basic HR practices, returning phone calls or recruiting strategically, are not being followed. We are recruiting after the counties, which does not make a lot of sense.”

Ms. Menz-Erb views principals as “the most important persons running our schools.”

“They create the school’s tone and culture. And, ultimately, if you have a strong principal, RPS will attract and retain strong teachers,” who she said have the greatest impact on a child’s learning.

Ms. Menz-Erb said parents are the foundation of educational solutions and thinks a shift in some schools’ perceptions is needed.

“We need to treat parents with respect and give them an opportunity to engage with their children’s learning. One of the things I would like to do is hire a parent coordinator for each school building.” The job would provide opportunities for parents to interact and engage with their child’s learning, she said.

With more than 30 years of front line and administrative experience with RPS, Dr. Henry has a clear picture of what she wants to accomplish if elected.

“Focusing on an effective STEM/STEAM program, as well as career and technical education programs, is one of my priorities,” she said.

The Richmond Technical Center is located in the 3rd District.

Dr. Henry said she would like to see students graduate with either a license or certification from the Tech Center because there is a continuing need for skilled craftspeople, including nursing technicians, auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians and others.

“I think our schools should be excellent. Whenever a Realtor brings a family into our city, they (should be able to) say, ‘Go to this school or that school’ because RPS is ranked with Henrico and Chesterfield. I don’t think it’s fair for young parents living in Richmond paying city taxes, yet sending their children to private schools.”

Dr. Henry views bringing outside resources into the system as one of her strengths and a priority.

“I have always gone out to find companies and people to support whatever the schools are doing,” she said. “Therefore, I can assist the superintendent is finding resources.”

Ms. Gibson believes there needs to be more trust in the city’s educational process from top to bottom — “trust in having leadership that ensures building safety, knowing our communities have a solid understanding of the budget, where the money is going and how it works.”

She said the next RPS superintendent should be a talented educator and administrator who can “bring out the best in the administration, faculty and students as well as provide, especially for the board, a clear understanding of the budgetary process.”

She views school facilities as one of the top priorities. That includes “building new buildings, fixing existing buildings and capacity issues, improving conditions teachers work in and students learn in, rezoning schools so families are sure where they will send their children from year to year.”

Ms. Gibson said she would bring to the position the experience and energy of an advocate who has been working in the community on behalf of the schools.

“When I enrolled my daughter in the schools seven years ago, we were in a recession,” she said. “I want to be part of the RPS solution when it comes to the way monies are allocated and continue to be a part of the advocacy for the system.”