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Mayoral Candidates Make Pitches for Richmond Schools Reform

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Mayoral candidates laid out their vision for Richmond Public Schools at the ChamberRVA Mayoral Forum. (Photos: Craig Carper/VPM News - Graphic: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

Graduation rates in Richmond Public Schools have worsened over the past five years, despite turn-around efforts. In 2015, around 80% of students graduated. By last year, that number had dropped to nearly 70%.

Rates are even lower for Latino students: only one third of them graduated in 2019. For white and Black students, graduation rates remain above 80%. Latino students also show the highest dropout rate at 65%, compared to 12% for white and Black students.

Mayoral candidate Alexsis Rodgers -- a local workers’ rights advocate and the state director for the nonprofit Care in Action -- says RPS must improve its language services to lessen the burden on English learners.

“Children are translating for their parents to discuss their grades and their performance in schools. That is a grave injustice that impacts their learning and their performance in our school system,” Rodgers said during an October forum hosted by VPM and NBC12.

Two other candidates for mayor, Councilwoman Kim Gray, a former member of the Richmond school board, and small business attorney Justin Griffin, favor job training programs. 

Gray wants to encourage students into work that doesn’t require a college degree. “I’d like to see an all out partnership between construction trades, law enforcement, EMTs; getting our young people certifications and training along with their diplomas,” Gray said.

Griffin’s plans for Richmond education include comprehensive curriculum changes, lessons in vehicle maintenance and cooking, and creating alternative career pathways for students who do not go to college.

During the forum, Griffin slammed the physical condition of RPS facilities as one of the district’s biggest failures. The mayor promised five new school buildings in 2018, when Mayor Levar Stoney raised the meals tax. Only three have been built. Still, Stoney calls that progress.

“My administration has provided historic funding to Richmond Public Schools. $30 million in new money to Richmond Public Schools over the last four years,” he said. “That’s because Richmond Public Schools is underfunded.”

Stoney says the funding to RPS must continue. In an August letter to the governor, he offered up another source of capital to build more schools: legal, taxable marijuana.

“I implore you to use the collected revenue from this new tax to fund the at-risk add-on, a program which allocates additional dollars to low-income students,” his letter read.

Rodgers also backs raising funding for schools, and investing in other areas that affect school families, such as childcare and infrastructure. She pointed to the lack of walkable places in Southside.

“It’s not just about having a chopped up sidewalk, or a stretch of land that doesn’t have a sidewalk. It’s about that walk to school,” Rodgers said during the forum.

But Griffin and Gray say increasing the school budget will not fix the problems. Instead, they both call for reworking the RPS budget, which currently sits at around $350 million dollars.  

“I don’t think the problem in the Richmond Public School system is dollars at this point,” Griffin said. “We put more money in, and we’re not getting any better results.”

VPM spoke with several RPS educators, who agreed with Beth Almore that school funding is too low. Almore, an elementary school orchestra teacher, says educators pick up the financial  burden. 

“Every teacher spends their own money. Every time I go shopping, I buy supplies for my students, and I’m sure every teacher does as well,” Almore said.

She says her biggest priority is choosing a mayor that supports collective bargaining for teachers, so they can negotiate working conditions and requirements, and their pay. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the gap between wages for teachers and other college-educated workers is one of the largest in the country.  

Educators also hope fixing this gap would address one of the district’s biggest challenges - getting teachers to stay.

“We need a mayor that will insist that teacher retention data be collected with fidelity, with accuracy, with statistical legitimacy. Not anecdotal information, but actual, real data,” Almore said.

Teachers also said they want a mayor who will address issues of racial and social justice for their students. A large majority of RPS students are Black, and the number of English language learners continues to grow.

“We have to recognize the social upheaval that's going on, particularly Black Lives Matter, and get on board with that, because our children are traumatized, and they're suffering as they see the injustices around them,” Almore said. “In order for them to do well in school, they have to feel that school is a safe place that recognizes their concerns.” 

This is an area where Superintendent Jason Kamras has received praise for his advocacy for both LGBTQ students and students of color. Kamras was sworn in in 2018, and his contract is up in June of next year. During the VPM-NBC12 forum, Stoney was the only candidate who pledged to renew it.