by Jessee Perry
The last School Board meeting for the year was also the last meeting for 8/9 School Board members. Starting in January, Jeff Bourne will be the only incumbent on the board. The almost all new board will have to hit the ground running immediately with budget season but the specters of boards past will need attention at some point. In August 2016, federal civil rights complaints were filed with the U.S. Department of Education which alleged unfairness in discipline policies. In November 2016, the ex-assistant principal at Linwood Holton Elementary filed a $5.3 million federal lawsuit alleging he was sexually harassed by the principal. Starting fresh could be what RPS needs but it will be challenging for the new board to juggle budget season while adjusting and potentially wading through history.
Over the last four years RPS has made progress; however, all too often the progress was overshadowed by the drama, antics, and absurdities of the School Board members. This is a plea and a farewell. Richmond residents, we need to hold our elected officials accountable on the issues and campaign promises. We need to see past the distractions and consistently keep the RPS at the forefront of the conversation. New RPS Board members, please be different. There is a lot of good each outgoing board member has done individually and as a group; however, their legacy will always have footnotes with all the drama. We need you all on top of the issues so RPS has the opportunity to be recognized for all of the good and positive moments. In addition, local media outlets need to report on the positives and highlight the successes of RPS and the board. As a local politics blog, we hope to include content praising our teachers, students, administrators, and community when something goes well.
To the outgoing board members; we look forward to seeing you continue to be involved in you communities and advocacy. You all have a lot of talent and passion for education and Richmond students and we hope you continue to make that progress. We hope that you will be available to the new board to offer some insight to your lessons learned. As a final farewell to this closing era and moving forward, we pulled together the worst of the worst from the last four years for each outgoing School Board member.
Thank you and good luck.
Distractions: the bad and the ugly
John Edward "Dawson" Boyer- 1st District
John Edward "Dawson" Boyer was appointed to the Richmond City School Board in February 2016 after Glen Sturtevant was elected to the state Senate. Dawson was one of ten applicants seeking appointment and won the vote 6-2. Other applicants included Deborah Corliss, Mike Dickinson (perennial candidate for office and strip club owner), Elizabeth Doerr (won election against Dawson in November), Peggy Feldman, Sonja Keeve, Rupa Murthy, Matthew Percival, Cody Sigmon, and Emily Turner.
In his short time on School Board, Dawson was not a strong voice; however, he received criticism online after posting a public Facebook status following Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem.
Kim Gray - 2nd District
In almost every news report about Richmond Public Schools, you can find Kim Gray providing insight. She has been vocal not just in meetings but also in the public eye (both in Richmond and in Denmark). Moving on up to City Council, we hope to see more of her passion and activism for Richmond Public Schools. What we hope to not see is a revival of her rough December 2014 or alleged verbal attacks. In June 2013, 9th district School Board Member Tichi Pinkney-Eppes alleged Gray bullied her with a verbal attack. On December 8, 2014 there were two incidents that resulted in protective orders filed against Gray. In one incident, 5th district School Board Member Mamie Taylor accused Gray of threatening her. In the other incident, community activist Charles Willis accused Gray of lunging at him during an argument. A judge denied both protective orders.
Kristen Larson- 4th District
Kristen Larson is another School Board Member moving on up to City Council at the beginning of 2017. In our City Council Superlatives, we named Kristen Teacher's Pet. This never rings more true in this moment when I can't find any dirt on her. In March 2015, there were questions raised on wasteful spending primarily directed toward the 9th District's Tichi Pinkney-Eppes; however, Larson was drug in with questions about a trip to Nashville. True to form, Larson gave a short, direct answer addressing the trip purpose and frequency of her travel expenditures. My personal favorite discovery about Larson is her City Council Campaign material featuring a custom image of her as a local political handy-woman by RVA Coffee Stain.
Mamie Taylor- 5th District
This may be a shorter list if I focus on things Mamie Taylor was not criticized for during her time on Richmond School Board. Taylor has been associated with wasteful spending, conflict, hiring a PR firm, and bad math skills. She also was reportedly one of school board members claimed to be the reasons an RPS exceptional education director resigned in June 2016. Despite criticism and accusations of "political grandstanding," Taylor narrowly lost her re-election bid which will be in court after the new board is sworn in. Taylor's work on school board has been an effort to advocate for the children in Richmond obscured by drama and missteps.
Shonda Harris-Muhammed- 6th District
Shonda is basically a human PA system. Her strong voice carries miles, her outfits are on point, and her lip color is always fire. If you have never met her, you can get a pretty good feel for who she is through her Facebook Live Videos. The RVA Dirt Shonda video pick is one from 19 days before the election where she reminds everyone to vote for her as the only Muhammed... only Harris-Muhammed... only the ballot. #FOURMOREYEARSLETSGO. While BoardDocs may speak to her voting record, the headlines speak to a different side. Drama started early on with Harris-Muhammed when her possession of a doctoral degree from Walden University was questioned. Her claim was that she earned the degree but no documentation was provided. Eventually, Harris-Muhammed was stripped of the title "Dr." on all school board related material. Just a few months after the "not-a-doctor" debacle, Harris-Muhammed's husband was arrested for manufacturing marijuana which prompted cries for her resignation and a deep dive into her husband's background. She stood strong and refused to resign. Eventually, her husband's charges were dropped from a felony manufacturing marijuana charge to a misdemeanor possession. In addition, Harris-Muhammed has been a victim of mysterious RVA-Wikileaks with two different incidents of leaked emails. The first email from May 2016 detailed safety concerns at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. The second email from August 2016 point to concerns over systemic issues that plague RPS and could negatively impact the school year. Rounding out her tenure, Harris-Muhammed was also alleged to be one of the reasons an RPS exceptional education director resigned.
Donald Coleman- 7th District
Donald Coleman is tied with Kristen Larson as least dramatic of the current school board. As the chairman of the board in 2014 and 2015, the biggest criticism could be linking the drama and challenges that occurred back to his leadership. After an article on Christianity Today that described Coleman's religious-based approach to politics, there was some online criticism of his merging church and state. This is not really dramatic, but Coleman's little brother Chad L. Coleman is an actor known for his roles on The Wire and Walking Dead.
Derik Jones- 8th District
Derik Jones is probably best known for being Mayor Dwight Jones's son. Like his father, he is also a pastor at Dwight's Jesus Mall of Chesterfield. In April 2016 Jones's link to his father hit a boiling point at the school board meeting. Marty Jewell instigated an argument with Jones by attacking Mayor Jones at the School Board meeting. Jewell's comments start in the meeting video at 19 minutes 25 seconds and the commotion is over by 24 minutes 15 seconds. Most recently, after the Office of the Inspector General investigation into the Director of the Department of Public Works, most articles detailing the results casually name dropped Derik as the son of Mayor Jones. Derik is leaving School Board on his own accord to focus on growing his church but that begs the question, will this be the last we see of him in politics? In 2015, Derik filed paperwork for a bid for state Senate along with the incumbent Sen. Rosalyn Dance, Joe Morrissey, and Del. Joseph Preston. Derik fell short of the 250 required signatures and was not certified on the ballot. Time will tell if we have seen the last of the Jones's.
Tichi Pinkney-Eppes- 9th District
Buckle up kids because this is a wild ride. During her tenure, Tichi Pinkney-Eppes received frequent scrutiny mostly focused on expenditures and her personal finances. Setting the stage was her "heated squabble" with Kim Gray where she told Gray to "shut up while I'm speaking" and allegedly Gray bullied her. In October 2013, CBS 6 reported that Pinkney-Eppes home was in foreclosure and had filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy. All was quiet on the Western front until a year later when it was discovered that Pinkney-Eppes released ~20 students personal files to a Medicaid vendor. School Board members voted to censure, publicly reprimand, and remove Pinkney-Eppes from all committee assignments as discipline for the release of student records. A few weeks later, she was subject to scrutiny alongside Mamie Taylor for expensive out of town trips. Taylor defended the trips while Pinkney-Eppes walked away mid-interview. Scrutiny of Pinkney-Eppes's spending resumed in March 2015 over a catering bill for $1,100. Next, she passed a stopped school bus and received a reckless driving ticket that was ultimately reduced to improper driving on the condition she complete driving school. Within days it was reported that she filed her third personal bankruptcy. More questions came a month later regarding a $7,500 expenditure. Pinkey-Eppes turned the tables the following week when she was critical of a financial settlement paid because of an incident involving Superintendent Dana Bedden. Of note, is that her public criticism was of a confidential matter discussed during closed session. Right before she failed to qualify for the ballot, an RPS exceptional education director resigned reportedly because of Pinkney-Eppes and two other school board members.