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News Report of Superintendent’s Contract Ignites Controversy

Man leaning forward
Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras at a School Board meeting in 2019. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Superintendent Jason Kamras’ time with Richmond Public Schools has been put up for debate, according to a recent report from the Richmond Free Press. The article says the school board is unsure whether to extend his contract for two years or four.

Sources “who spoke on the condition of anonymity” told the Free Press that 3rd District School Board Member Kenya Gibson proposed limiting the superintendent’s contract to two years. Gibson was not cited in the article. She told VPM fellow board members violated school board policy by discussing the contract negotiations with external parties.

“This appears to be a bad-faith attempt to pressure board members into a 4-year renewal,” Gibson said. “I'm both a parent and a staunch advocate and put considerable thought into every vote I make.”

Virginia law says local superintendents may serve for a maximum of four years at a time, though school boards may create contracts for less time than that. Kamras’ current term began in February of 2018, and his contract is set to expire in June. His current contract includes a base salary of $250,000.

While some RPS parents told VPM they support another two-year contract for the superintendent, a large majority of community members VPM spoke with say they prefer a four-year extension. Supporters of the superintendent have also started the hashtag #KeepKamras, and a petition calling for a four-year contract has received over 1,000 signaturesover the last three weeks. 

Many parents have particularly voiced satisfaction with how Kamras has tackled the COVID-19 pandemic. Justain Murphy of the 3rd District said he praises the superintendent’s handling of staff furloughs and virtual learning during the pandemic. 

“The district has new life under Superintendent Kamras’ leadership,” he said. “We are swinging in the direction of progress in our schools that will soon show in the educational result.”

Sherri Robinson, an RPS employee, echoed those sentiments, calling the superintendent “a beacon of light” for families and staff during the pandemic.

“Jason has shown grace, and to add he implemented strategies that encourage, support and assure the resources needed were available for all. I am grateful beyond words for his care and fearlessness to chart the course for the sake of safety,” Robinson said.

Ebony Mack of the 3rd District says her daughter will enter the RPS system in three years, so she supports a four-year contract renewal because it would ensure that Kamras is still superintendent when her daughter begins school. 

She commends Kamras’ vocal support for removing armed police, known as school resource officers, from school buildings. Last summer, he held a series of virtual town hall events with students to discuss the presence of SROs in school.

“He listened to the kids and was willing to move forward on that,“ she said. “I would love to have someone stick around for my daughter and to see the different kind of school system that we will have with continued care. We have had so many superintendents turn over in the past decade and a half or so, and we really need the stability of consistent leadership.”

This need for consistent leadership was the main concern of many parents and staff that spoke with VPM. One RPS teacher — who asked for their name to be omitted out of fear of pushback from their employer — says consistent leadership would help address the district’s issue with teacher retention and recruitment.

“I think that having stronger leadership attracts more qualified candidates,” they said. “It makes me lay down plans to stay as well. I think that part of teacher retention is having leaders that you feel like are going to stay and that you can invest in.”

Karen Hardison, an RPS parent, also called for consistent leadership: “Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight. If we have any hope of getting RPS heading in the right direction and best serving the students and families of our city, we’ve got to stop turning over superintendents every 15 minutes.” 

Not all members of the community are on the same page, however. Ben Himmelfarb, an education advocate for Richmond for All who previously served as campaign manager for now-Board Member Stephanie Rizzi, says he personally supports a two-year contract.

“I think a shorter two-year contract renewal makes sense. That would perfectly align his contract with the end of the strategic plan that he submitted, Dreams 4 RPS,” he said. The superintendent’s Dream 4 RPS strategic plan was introduced in 2018 and aims to be completed by 2023.

Himmelfarb echoed Gibson’s concerns regarding the decision by RPS officials to leak confidential negotiation details to the Free Press: “Contract negotiations are a confidential matter that take place in closed session, so it's really not possible, nor appropriate, for board members to discuss the negotiations.”

The Richmond School Board will meet next on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The meeting can be streamed live on the RPS Facebook Page.

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