Editor’s note: This is not an endorsement. CHPN does not do political endorsements. This is the final of three profiles on all school board candidates- check out Gary Broderick’s here and Cheryl Burke’s here.
We had a chance to sit down with the final candidate in the 7th district for school board this past Saturday. As many of you know, Cheryl Burke, has been the interim school board member for the past year and now it’s time for a special election to fill that seat.
Bryce Robertson wants the chance. Bryce is a 30-year-old East End resident. He’s an immigration lawyer, graduated from Cornell University and Villanova University for Law School, and attended RPS for elementary school. Consequently, Ms. Cheryl Burke was Bryce’s principal at Chimborazo elementary.
The first thing that struck us about Bryce is that people like him, everyone says hi to him, and he easily talks to everyone. When he first walked in a random couple, who have grandchildren in the 7th district, recognized Bryce and struck up a conversation.
Why are you running for school board in the 7th district?
It’s an important issue. Schools impact all of us. It doesn’t matter if you have kids who are in Richmond public schools, or if you are a concerned citizen. Either way, you are impacted by the schools. The young people who are in the schools are the future of our community. And I was one of them at one point. If I look at young folks who are here in the city of Richmond, and me and my clients happen to be Richmond public school students, I just want them to have the best opportunities. They are just like me when I was little, and I just want to see us succeed in new ways.
We’ve got to be innovative. Because if we keep doing things the way we’ve been doing, we’re going to get the same results. And that’s not good for anyone.
Do you experience that a lot? People stopping you to have a chat about their concerns and issues.
Talking to people and understanding what’s really important to them is so important to me. When I take on this role and I speak in that fashion. When I take on this role, it’s not just about what I think. It’s important that the people know what my perspectives are on some of the issues. But more importantly, it is about engaging and understanding what the community’s perspective is on the issues that are important to students, parents, and educators in the community. You’re both a trustee for the school district and a representative, a voice, for the community. And in that way, I want to take that perspective going forward. We can’t just make decisions in isolation.
You have to engage with the community. I want to see more engagement. And I’ve been trying to come up with ways that we can have more of that engagement.
At his job as a lawyer Bryce does immigration law but he also does a lot of work with families and children. He often finds himself in JDR Court (Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts) here in Richmond. As a result, he interacts with a lot of the students that he feels our school system and community fails. An issue he is very passionate about is the “school to jail” pipeline as some call it.
How does your experience as a lawyer shape the way you view our student’s current experience?
There has been a lot of criticism directed towards Camelot, which is an alternative school. And I think it deserved criticism because they’re making money off of who’s in there. And ultimately, they end up in the criminal justice system. I have a problem with that certainly when I’m trying to make sure kids are getting their fair shake in JDR court and in other squares. But suspension and expulsion from school ends up creating this pathway where you’re at greater risk for substance abuse, for future issues with criminal justice, and mental health concerns. The city of Richmond is under a civil rights investigation because of our black and minority students. They are at a much larger disadvantage. They’re expelled at almost five times the rate of their peers. And that’s not right. I echo the Legal Aid Justice Center when they say, “We can’t use access to education as punishment.”
We should look around the country at good models of how we can keep young people engaged in the academic process even if they’re at risk of disciplinary action, that means let’s approach them from the real problems, the trauma and the poverty that they face at home sometimes. Parents who are not necessarily able to give them the attention and pour into them the way that they want to.
Cheryl Burke was your former principal and current opponent. How is that experience?
I have a huge amount of respect for Cheryl, I do. She has been in education for a very long time. My concern, and the reason why I got involved in this race is because I think that sometimes innovation has to come from outside of something you’re so close to. Sometimes it’s very difficult to see the solutions that can get you moving in a different direction. So that is important to me. And I haven’t seen any new ideas.
We also need to be thinking about fundamental change. Like dramatic things that from a research perspective, and just from a good practices perspective, we need to be doing differently in our schools. So right or wrong, I just think that we need some new energy.
When asked about community engagement Bryce shared with us a few different things. First, his mother was an educator and his dad and grandparents were always involved in the community. Giving back. In addition, Bryce does pro bono work with the James House here in Richmond which is an organization that supports women who’ve been victims of domestic violence. He mentors as well with Pasaporte a la Educacion here in Richmond which aims to partner Hispanic children with bilingual mentors.
Many of our readers often complain about the amount of money spent per student in RPS. What’s your take?
Per pupil spending, okay I have a huge problem with that statistic. It does not accurately reflect the issues that we face in Richmond particular. And in urban cities you’re going to have buildings that are old. You’re going to have many more of them. And they cost money to maintain. And that’s going to inflate that per pupil cost to begin with. And there’s also other concerns that you have in the community too that impact our students because spending is higher. And it’s got to be higher. And it’s just a fact of the matter. So when people come at us with the whole per pupil, “You’re per pupil spending is XYZ, versus …” you’re not seeing the whole picture. At least that’s my perspective.
I know how they go. It is a trip. And it’s infuriating because they’re looking at it one way. And they think that this is a great way to apprise our school district and our effectiveness and efficiency. Now I will say, we do need to be more effective and efficient and accountable, and transparent with all of those things because you can find efficiencies. And I look at some things that we’ve dealt with over the last several months. And it’s nobody’s fault. It’s nobody fault, I mean no particular person’s fault. What it is, it’s years over year of issues and disconnect between the city and the school board. And this lack of communication, which is so crucial, right?
I wouldn’t say that we need to totally forget about the importance of being efficient with the budget. But I would also say that the per pupil spending doesn’t tell the whole story. If we’re going to use that to be compared against Henrico, or Chesterfield, or Hanover, then we’re missing the point.
One of the things that people bring up as well is consolidation. What do you think about that topic?
Here’s the thing. Once you close a school, there’s really no return. People talk about, “oh, we can mothball a school.” No, it costs more money to bring the school back once you close it, it’s done. I think as we move into rezoning, and we move into talking about some of these other things, first of all, conversation has to be totally transparent, community-oriented conversation. It’s got to be about what the community desires and what’s best.
But in my own perspective, it’s that small schools, small class sizes work. Especially in communities like ours where you’ve got lots of poverty and trauma. And research shows that if you’re trying to tackle those issues, you need the small schools, you do. So I don’t want to sacrifice the supports of our young people and their achievement for efficiencies. Certainly, if it’s no good. I just need to make sure that what we’re doing is going to serve our students in the best way.
It’s an open community conversation. And I will commit to making sure that this community’s voice is heard as we have these discussions. I have huge issues with people always talking about Richmond and equity and segregation. Richmond’s never had a desegregated school system. We have all this beautiful stuff happening around here. I remember when I was little, this community. This, it would have been … It’s a dream. No one would have ever expected the things like this mall and the Front Porch Café and the things happening next door.
(Jacob) So the term that I heard, which I kind of liked and some people might find offensive, was “White Flight.” Which I hadn’t heard that before, that was a new term for me. I asked Cheryl Burke this question, and I’ll ask it to you too. How do you change that? How do you get those families that have the means to either not send their kid to a private school or move out to a county? Because I think that was kind of your story, right?
Exactly, that is my story. Who can fault parents for wanting to do the best for their kids, of course, from their perspective? I would want to encourage any family here in our community to take the steps, or take the chance, take the opportunity to help improve or commit to our school district and our push to make it the school district we want it to be by sending their kids to Richmond public schools. There is no silver bullet that’s going to turn things around right away. But if we take steps now with the proper leadership and resources, we will have those highly qualified teachers who will commit to our urban school district. We will have these wonderful partnerships with organizations in the community that can change the way our schools function, that can provide services from within the schools and make them into a model for our state, our region, or even country.
What do you think about more money? You’ve said that you do think that there are efficiencies to be implemented, that they can better use the funds that they do have. Do you think the schools still need more money?
I do. I think that we’re chronically underfunded. I think that that’s a reality. And I need for the city council to cough it up. I really do. As a school board member, one of my commitments is going to be to push for full funding. But we do have to show that we’re doing everything we can do to be an effective school district with the resources that we do have. As a board member at the Garden Schoolhouse, formerly Chesterfield Innovative Panel for Growth, we have limited resources. We have to be able to use the funds the most effective way for instruction for the students. And I think that we just need to take a good look, and an auditor is a good step.
Now I am excited about the potential for online retail sales tax to be going towards schools. I’m excited about things that can actually happen in the state that will help us. We don’t get to directly impact that either.
If you had to sum up the 3 things that separate you from the other candidates what would they be?
- First, I would say that I have a need or … I can’t make any decision without community engagement. I just can’t. And I think that it’s important to be out there, to speak with people, to have the meetings. I want there to be more opportunities for community engagement. If that means hosting a Facebook live chat after a school board meeting, then that’s what it means. If it means having community meetings, then that’s what it means. I just need to make sure that there’s the community’s perspective that is heard when critical decisions are being made.
- Bold and innovative ideas that are relevant to our schools. I’m not somebody who sits back and accepts where things are. I think that we need to be different. I think we need to reach and do things in a different way. And make our community work together and collaborate. And that’s what I want to see. I think it’ll help our school district improve tremendously. I look forward to working with other school board members to accomplish that. Because I know there are some wonderful ideas that we have with the former members of the school board that I’m really excited about.
- I have a unique perspective. I’m the only individual who is running right now who is a former Richmond public school student and I’m an attorney for some of these children. It provides me with a very different perspective. When I sit down with students at Richmond public schools who are also my clients, they are sharing with me things that would make some people’s heart break. It makes my heart break sometimes. And I just view things from a very different angle. And I know that we can do more in terms of trauma informed care, in terms of disciplinary practices in our story of justice. Components that are not actually present in our school at current. And I speak to their parents. And I know that the parents want to do more. They don’t always have the time, or the energy, or the resources to do it. And if the parents can’t come, we need to go out to them. I think that it gives me a very different way of looking at the problems and the solutions.
Get to know Bryce:
The special election will be held on November 6, 2018, during the regular midterm general election. All regular polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Registrar Office advises all voters that photo ID is required.