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“He saw us as insignificant”: Stoney Terminates Teacher Council in Education Pivot

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Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney dismissed his entire Teachers Advisory Council, a committee set up in 2018 to guide his education policy. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney removed all 19 members of his Teachers Advisory Council earlier this month, saying he’ll “revisit the criteria for membership.” The council was formed in 2018 to guide the mayor’s policy efforts in teacher retention and recruitment. 

In a Jan. 7 email to the members, Stoney said his education priorities had changed since the group was first created, and that he’s looking  to create a new council that matches his new vision.

“I remain committed to the elevation of teacher voice as a critical component to policy-making. However, it is important for the success of both our students and our schools that all associated bodies have aligned goals,” his email reads.

Stoney’s email was sent out four days ahead of the advisory group’s next scheduled meeting. Renai Bowers, a member of the council, said she was “blindsided” by Stoney’s decision.

“The council was built on elevating teacher voices, and it was like this decision was just made unilaterally without any real consultation,” Bowers said. “We could have talked about this, gotten a little bit more of an understanding as to what his new direction was, and why we can be a part of it.”

Bowers, a teacher at Broad Rock Elementary, was elected to a leadership position in the council last year. She says she was looking forward to working with the council to recruit teachers from racially diverse backgrounds, and to advocate for more funding at the General Assembly.

In response to Stoney’s decision to disband the council, the members sent the mayor a letter Wednesday where they voiced frustration with his decision. Kerry Richardson, an inaugural member and a teacher at Barack Obama Elementary, said the group felt disrespected.

“We were very stunned and surprised,” she said. “I felt very offended. I felt as if he saw us as insignificant… The dismissal of our talents, ideas, expertise, our knowledge — It’s his loss, period.”

Since its inception, the council has had significant achievements. The group worked with the Richmond Fire Department to get free CPR and first aid classes for all Richmond teachers, something they used to pay for out of pocket. The council also helped Richmond schools secure more state funding.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office clarified that the council itself is not dissolved, but rather, “reconstituted” to address “evolving needs” of Richmond families. Stoney plans to put together another version of the council in the future. 

“In his first term, the mayor was focused on universalizing access to high-quality out-of-school time at all elementary and middle schools, as well as fully funding the RPS strategic plan. The Mayor's Teacher Advisory Council was helpful in advancing those priorities. In his second term, Mayor Stoney is working to universalize access to preschool and to strengthen pathways to college and career for all Richmonders,” said Stoney spokesperson Jim Nolan.

Richardson says the former council offered the mayor a wealth of diversity, both in terms of race and ethnicity, and also in terms of professional experience. She says if the mayor felt a need to pivot his focus to pre-K and higher education, there were members of the former council that had experience in those areas.

“I don't think it's a very valid answer,” she said. “He had pre-K teachers on the MTAC who could advise him, as well as high school teachers who could also advise him on how we are preparing our high school seniors for college.”

Bowers said she did not believe there were particular policy areas where Stoney and the council significantly disagreed. However, she says the council had expressed an interest in turning into a public body instead of a private advisory group, which became a point of contention. 

“The council as a whole was definitely looking to be more formally recognized as an official body and his office was not interested in that,” she said. Bowers says one of the main reasons they  wanted to hold public meetings and increase the group’s online presence. 

The mayor’s office claims the group was reluctant to follow the legal requirements necessary to be a city board, which would have prohibited them from private or unscheduled meetings.

However, Bowers says all council members were “agreeable to all of the terms” related to being a public body. She says Stoney’s main reason for refusing the group public status was that it would “change our dynamic.”

Bowers says the mayor has not reached out to members of the council since he terminated their membership. She says she has no intention to apply to be a member of the next iteration of the council, but commends the group’s efforts and achievements.

“I think they're going to be hard pressed to find educators with the amount of experience and vastly different training, vastly different areas of educational expertise, teachers of various races and origins… I think we brought so much to the table. I think it's going to be hard to replace that,” Bowers said.

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