Meet Richmond’s New School Board Members
A majority of Richmond School Board incumbents will be returning for another term in January. Board members Liz Doerr, Kenya Gibson, Jonathan Young, Cheryl Burke and Dawn Page all succeeded in their reelection campaigns. Doerr and Burke ran unopposed.
The incumbents will be joined by four new members. They offer a variety of backgrounds and perspectives and will face a number of challenges: dropping graduation rates, schooling during a pandemic and ageing school facilities, to name a few.
Here’s a look at the four women who will join the Richmond School Board next year.
Mariah White, 2nd District
Mariah White served as a U.S. Army officer for 26 years. She retired as a major in the Virginia Army National Guard in 2014 and has worked at the Department of Defense for the last 24 years.
White has two sons who are RPS students, and she is an alumna of Virginia Commonwealth University and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Most recently, White graduated from Strayer University with a master’s degree in education.
White is the legislative director for the Richmond chapter of the Military Officer Association of America, and she’s a member of the American Legion Post 144. She’s also a member of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League, the gun safety group Moms Demand Action and the city’s chapter of the League of Women Voters,
The incoming board member says she wants to see a detailed health and safety plan from RPS before students return to school. Her list of school board work priorities includes addressing the district’s high dropout rates and revising student discipline methods. She also says she wants to see more equitable access to school resources.
“Every child still doesn’t have computers,” White said. “Toilet papers, water fountains, chairs, desks -- those are basic necessities, and every child should have it. It shouldn’t be by school. Every child should have services that address their needs.”
Continuing this focus on equity, White raised concerns about student admissions at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. Over the summer, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that less than 10% of the nationally recognized magnet school’s students are Black, even though Black students represent a third of all who can apply to Maggie Walker.
“Everybody needs the opportunity to go to the governor’s school, no matter what their color is,” White said.
White first ran for the 2nd District school board seat in 2012, when she was defeated by now-councilmember Kim Gray. Four years later, she ran again and lost to board member Scott Barlow. In her third run for the seat, she defeated Barlow this year by a margin of about 17 percentage points.
“I’m still going to do the same things that I was gonna do the first and second time I ran, and that’s to focus on our children and our families and to ensure our children have the quality education that they should have,” White said.
White will represent Carver Elementary, William Fox Elementary and Richmond Alternative School. The Maggie Walker Governor's School and CodeRVA Regional High School are also located in Richmond's 2nd district, though they are represented by their own independent school boards.
Stephanie Rizzi, 5th District
Rizzi is a long-time Virginia educator. She taught for two years at the St. Patrick’s School in Church Hill, four years in Henrico County Public Schools, three years in Caroline County and two years in King George County. For the last 12 years, she’s taught at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The new school board member also has a long history of activism and community organizing in Richmond. She’s a member of Richmond for All, a progressive political action group focused on housing, education and governmental transparency. She received the group’s endorsement for her school board race.
Rizzi is also a member of the Richmond Crusade for Voters and the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, and she’s the former president of the Randolph Community Group, now known as the Randolph Neighborhood Association.
She says her main motivations for running for the 5th District school board seat were that she saw a need for more funding for RPS and was concerned about the district’s rising dropout rates, particularly among Latino students.
“I know how important our schools are, especially our public schools. And I have watched our schools slowly get abandoned, defunded, when funding should be increasing,” Rizzi said. “Our kids are our most valuable resource.”
Rizzi says she credits RPS teachers with helping raise her two sons -- one is a current RPS student, and the other is an RPS graduate. She says she intends to involve educators in the district’s decision-making on issues such as the schools’ curricula.
“Teachers are professionals. They have degrees. They are experts and should not be treated as though they have no agency,” Rizzi said.
Rizzi says she recognizes the frustrations of not being able to send students back to school, but she believes there’s not clear evidence yet that the pandemic is under control, and thus, she says classes should remain virtual for the time being.
“A lot of our teachers are older or are taking care of older relatives,” Rizzi said. “To me, it’s just not safe, and we won’t go back, as far as I’m concerned, until we know that it’s safe.”
The VCU professor won a four-way race to replace 5th District board member Patrick Sapini, who chose not to run for reelection this year.
Rizzi will represent John B. Cary Elementary, Maymont Preschool Center, Swansboro Elementary, Binford Middle, Open High, George Wythe High, Amelia Street, Patrick Henry School of Arts & Sciences and Richmond Career Education & Employment Academy.
“I’m excited,” she said. “It’s a time to be creative. It’s a time to figure this out and maybe reconfigure how we conduct governance -- school governance specifically.”
Shonda Harris-Muhammed, 6th District
Harris-Muhammed has worked in education for 29 years. Currently, she’s an assistant principal in Franklin City Public Schools. In the past, she has served as a math teacher, a curriculum specialist, a testing coordinator and a special education compliance coordinator.
She is also the founder and executive director of the Northside Coalition for Children. Since 2008, the group has partnered with local organizations, churches and businesses to provide free backpacks and school supplies to Richmond students and teachers.
Harris-Muhammed says she decided to run for the seat when she saw a large number of Richmond students lacked the needed technology to attend school virtually during the pandemic. Similarly, she expressed concerns about the limited number of smart boards at RPS schools.
“We still have schools where teachers are required to work from a chalkboard, where the office administrator has to order chalk. I’m not understanding that,” Harris-Muhammed said. She says the impact of the pandemic “exposed some hidden truths of Richmond Public Schools.”
Before students and staff can return to in-person instruction, Harris-Muhammed says the district must adequately update and prepare its facilities to better protect students and staff from COVID-19.
“That means sanitizing bottles on every wall. The restrooms need to be upgraded, many touchless sinks and toilets. We need to prepare the cafeteria for social distancing. All of those things,” she said.
A previous school board member from 2012 to 2016, Harris-Muhammed secured her return to the Richmond School Board after a tight three-way race to replace incumbent board member Felicia Cosby, who did not seek reelection.
The returning board member says she wants to keep politics out of Richmond education -- “education is not partisan,” she said. She expressed intention to address issues that affect every district, but pointed to low teacher retention in the 6th District as one of her main priorities.
“I’m very humbled, and I’m in awe,” Harris-Muhammed said of her election victory. She will represent Overby-Sheppard Elementary, Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle and Martin Luther King, Jr. Preschool Center.
Nicole Jones, 9th District
Jones is the deputy director at Art 180, a nonprofit that provides art education programs. Native to the Bronx in New York, she says she relocated to Richmond in 1998 to provide her son a better education.
Since coming to Richmond, she’s served as a member of the fundraising committee for the Thomas Jefferson High School PTSA. Jones has also served as the president for the Worthington Farms Civic Association, and she was a member of the board of directors for the Drums not Guns Foundation.
Jones says as a school board member, she will focus on advocating for more funding for Richmond schools, which she says is central to address the district’s socioeconomic inequities. She also pointed to overcrowding at schools as one of her main concerns.
“Another top priority is ensuring that our Latinx families are being actively engaged. That the resources are being created for them to feel a part of the system, and to ensure that they are receiving the resources that they need for their young people to thrive,” Jones said.
On the pandemic, Jones says she recognizes a mix of needs throughout RPS, with some who wish to remain virtual, and others who want to return to the classroom. She says she wants to ensure that every voice is heard as RPS decides how to move forward.
“The immediate priority is to continue discussing dialogue and creating safe spaces for teachers, parents, students, faculty -- for everyone to show up and share their concerns, to hopefully find a happy medium,” Jones said.
Jones ran unopposed for the 9th school board district seat. Current board member Linda Owen did not seek reelection and endorsed Jones for the seat. Jones says she looks forward to learning more about the system of school governance and hopes to earn parents’ trust through her advocacy.
“I’m not a politician. I’m a parent -- so it’s personal,” Jones said, letting out a laugh. “I’m looking forward to doing my part as a school board member and working with all of the school board members to continue to build a better RPS for all children.”
Jones will represent J. L. Francis Elementary, Cardinal Elementary, Miles J. Jones Elementary, Elizabeth D. Redd Elementary and G. H. Reid Elementary.