Jason Kamras is but the latest superintendent to form an emotional attachment with Richmond Public School (RPS) constituents.
Six years ago before the “Keep Kamras” campaign that landed him with a fat new contract extension, RPS advocates launched a “Better With Bedden” campaign on behalf of then-Superintendent Dana Bedden, whose flirtation with the Boston school district set off a community panic.
Bedden, feeling the love, withdrew from the Boston search.
Two years later, he was fired.
Kamras — a more effective communicator and politician than Bedden — parlayed the passion of his supporters into a four-year contract extension valued at well more than $1 million in salary and benefits.
Perhaps at some point, he’ll be required by the Richmond School Board to produce results. Richmond’s schoolchildren are counting on it.
“It’s hard to say at the moment he could make a strong case that he has turned the schools around, because the evidence doesn’t show that yet,” said Bob Holsworth, a commentator on local politics and former professor and dean at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Kamras acknowledged as much Monday night.
“I’m the very first person to say we have an enormous amount of work to do,” he said.
Kamras has been given the benefit of the doubt, and the rare gift of abundant time in a profession notorious for its turnover. For now, the board and Richmond school community have the stability they’ve craved.
The pandemic has heightened the sense of urgency in a district where the toll of the virus particularly has been harsh on the health, education and welfare of Black and Hispanic residents.
It’s impossible not to grade Kamras, or any school superintendent, on a curve. What district anywhere is thriving right now during a time where survival is the watchword and children are struggling to learn in front of computer screens instead of in a classroom? The pandemic made assessing his job performance truly difficult, if not impossible. It’s almost like his first term as superintendent is a wash — a four-year pass of sorts.
Kamras did not inherit a great situation before this lethal virus struck. The majority of the board reached the conclusion that a two-year contract — given the toll of the pandemic on learning — would have left him with precious little time to show improvement.
The four-year extension is a calculated gamble on the 2005 National Teacher of the Year and education adviser for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Then again, Kamras had no prior experience as a superintendent. He’s like a star athlete constantly evaluated on his or her potential.
Kim Gomez, an RPS parent, likes what she sees in the curriculum and foundation that Kamras has established. She lauds his communication skills, which have stood out during a pandemic that has curtailed in-person learning.
Equity — Kamras’ watchword upon his arrival — has been elusive. At least one board member Monday accused the district of a drift toward elitism. The superintendent’s attempt at rezoning the district for more racial diversity flamed out amid parental resistance.
Gomez, who is white, described Kamras as a white superintendent who has used his privilege to speak truth to power. Even the failed rezoning effort had value, she said. The discussion “brought to the surface a lot of ugly truths that were not far beneath the surface at all.”
Few folks if any were calling for Kamras to be removed, although the Richmond Branch NAACP and Richmond Crusade for Voters supported a two-year extension for him.
Board member Kenya Gibson voted against the four-year pact Monday, stating “this was not the time to engage in an all-or-nothing debate when we have so much at stake as a district.” Board member Stephanie Rizzi wanted to see more measurable improvements before such a commitment, rather than “a proverbial political line in the sand.”
Those concerns ultimately were outweighed by the board’s desire not to send Kamras a signal to start looking elsewhere. But Monday’s vote doesn’t erase the district’s serious academic challenges and limited progress during his tenure, or the challenges ahead.
“It is hard to imagine that given how long Richmond students have been doing simply remote learning — in a district where that has to be extraordinarily challenging — that these numbers are going to turn around in the next year or so,” Holsworth said.
Kamras has his cheering section, but also skeptics.
“There are strong voices in the community that want to say, ‘When does this accountability for his performance actually kick in? What’s the timetable here?’” Holsworth said.
Benefit of the doubt invariably includes an expiration date. The school board that has given Kamras so much of what he wants needs to start demanding more in return.