At heated council meeting, debate over Teach for America, public speakers’ rights

Deputy City Clerk Pat Christian and Janet Johnson, Sr. Business Assistance Officer  count the ballots for formation of the first business improvement district in Richmond.

Deputy City Clerk Pat Christian and Janet Johnson, Sr. Business Assistance Officer count the ballots for formation of the first business improvement district in Richmond.

During a heated meeting on Tuesday night, Richmond council members tackled two items that drew out many members of the public: the teachers’ union’s concerns about Teach For America members employed in Richmond and the formation of the city’s first business improvement district. But the most heated exchange of the night came when council members Corky Booze and Jovanka Beckles got into a dust-up over Booze’s request for a legal opinion regarding his concerns about the possible civil rights violations of public speakers during past meetings.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin brought before the council a proposal from the teacher’s union, United Teachers of Richmond, for the city to send a letter to Dr. Bruce Harter, Superintendent of the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), asking him to hear the union’s concerns about Teach For America.

Teach For America (TFA) is a national organization made up of recent college graduates who commit to two years of teaching in under-resourced urban and rural schools. It is a public-private partnership, with 70 percent of its funding coming through private means—corporations, foundations and individuals—and the rest supplied by AmeriCorps contributions and the school districts where TFA teachers work. WCCUSD employs around 1,400 teachers, and of those 100 are TFA teachers.

Some teachers’ union members say that TFA teachers put senior teachers out of work and undermine the union’s work in the district because they cost less to employ. Once employed in Richmond all TFA teachers are part of the United Teachers of Richmond union. TFA teachers enter the program after earning a bachelors degree and take night classes while teaching their first year to earn their credentials.

“This was brought to my attention because WCCUSD puts Teach For America teachers, who are uncertified, in teaching positions. It de-professionalizes the profession of teaching,” McLaughlin said on Tuesday night.

McLaughlin’s original proposal to the council included strong language that would have severed the city’s relations with Teach For America. But, after extensive public debate and pressure from other council members, she scaled the motion back and dropped the language implying that the city would not support TFA. The amended version proposed sending Harter a letter asking him to meet with the union and listen to their concerns.

After introducing the item, McLaughlin asked Diane Brown, president of the United Teachers of Richmond, to explain for the council the union’s position. Brown said she feels that TFA teachers are taking positions in Richmond that she believes should go to credentialed, experienced teachers and that TFA members lack commitment to the district and will likely leave after their two years are up. She said the school district has claimed that it brought in TFA teachers because there is a teacher shortage in the area, but she does not believe that is true. “In our district, we know there’s not a teacher shortage. We know by the district’s own admissions that they were hiring uncertified teachers to reduce teachers’ costs,” she said.

Dozens of community members, including TFA teachers and Richmond students, took to the podium and implored the council to withhold judgment on Teach for America teachers.

“The teachers have impacted me greatly. It’s sad that you want to neglect future students from having this experience,” said Ashley Vera, a sophomore in Richmond. The union members who spoke against TFA “say they want us to have the best teachers,” she continued. “Well, the Teach For America teachers are the best that I’ve had,” she said.

Andre Taylor, graduated from Richmond High last month, agreed with Vera about the quality of TFA teachers. “I just graduated, one of the only African Americans to graduate with honors, and I had a majority of TFA teachers,” he said. “They’ve helped mentor me and get me where I am today. It’s not about how long a teacher is there, it’s about what they bring. As long as you can bring education to someone, that’s the power you need to bring.”

Some of the TFA members said they were being unfairly criticized regarding their lack of credentialing and long- term commitment to the city. “I don’t know where the two-year myth came from. I like teaching in Richmond, I really do,” said Andrew McDonald, a TFA teacher in Richmond. “I was credentialed through Cal State East Bay in one year, but the education I got from TFA in one summer far surpassed the education I got at CSUEB. I’m fully credentialed; I’ve been through every training that every other teacher has been through. I encourage you to hear us out.”

“Are the teachers who come through the program bad teachers?” Councilmember Tom Butt asked Mary Flanagan, a Richmond teacher and United Teachers of Richmond union member.

“They’re disengaged with the union. They’re disengaged with the community,” Flanagan answered. But under Butt’s questioning, none of the speakers or council memberss said they believed TFA teachers were inferior teachers.

At the end of the public session, McLaughlin said that she still did not like the idea of the city, or district, supporting TFA because of the two-year commitment model and because it is a mostly privately- funded organization. “I think there’s a risk involved when you have teachers coming in just for two years,” she said.

After over two hours of debate, the council unanimously voted to pass McLaughlin’s amended motion, asking Harter to meet with the teachers’ union.

With a 5-1 vote, the city council also approved the formation of the Downtown Richmond Property and Business Improvement District (DRPBID). A business improvement district is a delineated area within which businesses pay a special tax to fund improvements to the area. Ballots sent out in May to Richmond property owners in the proposed district showed that a majority (weighted by amount of assessment paid) supported creating the district.

The bulk of the district is within the borders of 6th Street, Nevin Avenue and Harbour Way. Property owners within the district will pay an additional tax of $0.12 per parcel square foot of their property for the first year, totaling $183,092. As a significant property owner in the area, the city will allocate $31,522 annually to the district.

That revenue will be used to provide additional cleaning, maintenance, security, marketing, promotions and business attraction services throughout downtown Richmond.

During the public comment session, supporter Amanda Elliott, the executive director of the Richmond Main Street Initiative, said they’ve worked hard to reach out to the community. “Over the past decade, Richmond Main Street has done great things for downtown Richmond. We’ve increased traffic downtown, improved cleanliness and safety,” she said.

When the council voted, Booze was the lone dissenter. “I can’t support something like this because I have people down there who can’t really afford to pay,” he said.

Remarks from other councilmember following the vote were more positive. “I’m really excited about this. I think this is a great thing for Richmond,” said Butt. Councilmember Jeff Ritterman agreed saying, “Go team! Terrific. It’s essential we revitalize the downtown.”

After the vote on these two agenda items, most of the audience left, and as the night wore on the tension on the dias mounted.

Booze proposed a motion to direct the City Attorney to provide a legal opinion regarding possible violations of public speakers’ civil rights during city council meetings. Booze said that the problem arises when council members cut people off from speaking, or have them thrown out for not being quiet.

“One of the things I have a problem with, Madam Mayor, is when I was your boy and Tom Butt’s boy, I could say anything I wanted at the podium. You were in charge at that time. Every time I spoke against you you’d cut me off. You must treat everybody equal,” Booze said.

Booze went on to chastise the City Attorney, who had earlier advised council members not to speak about specific incidences because that could open the door for a lawsuit, for not taking a stronger legal position on the issue. “That is one of the things you can’t do. You can’t violate a person’s civil rights,” he said.

Booze’s proposal came after a contentious meeting last week when audience members argued from their seats with members of the council and with each other. The argument began with differing opinions over whether or not to charge the USS Red Oak Victory Ship for berthing, but devolved into name calling and yelling when people started talking over one another. McLaughlin called repeatedly for order, told the audience to be quiet, threatened to have the police remove audience members who did not listen and sent the council into multiple recesses.

During this week’s meeting, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the council’s discussion of Booze’s proposal centered on what constitutes freedom of speech and at what point the council has the right to have a speaker removed, or to talk back to the audience.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion and one of the things I’d like to remind this council is that when you run for office, and if you’re successful, you become a public servant, which means you work for the people,” said councilmember Nat Bates. “Allow them to speak and say what they have to say within those 1 or 2 or 3 minutes.”

McLaughlin said she was upset about Booze’s proposal. “I just want to say that frankly this council is extremely dysfunctional. This item comes forward when I give so much leeway to speakers and to this council. I am very unhappy that this item came forward,” she said.

Beckles took issue with what she saw as Booze’s attempt to blame the inter-council fighting on her and the other council members. “We are not the problem. This man, Councilmember Booze, is the problem,” she said.

Booze responded to her comment as multiple council members simultaneously took to their microphones to reply, but their exact words were drowned out as their voices rose in an attempt to be heard.

The frustration between members culminated in Beckles yelling at Booze while storming out of the hall during an impromptu recess. “Get a life. You are so negative. That’s why I don’t even want to sit next to you. You ooze it. You ooze it. You are evil. So evil,” she said.

Booze remained in his seat, turned his back to Beckles and chuckled as she left the meeting early.

After the recess and Beckles’ departure, the council reconvened to approve Booze’s directive, which will ask the City Attorney to explain to the council members what they can and cannot do or say to the public during a city council meeting. This will take place during a forthcoming closed session.

The city council also approved a letter of support by the city to the RotaCare Richmond Free Medical Clinic at Brighter Beginnings. Brighter Beginning is a non-profit that works to build stronger families in Richmond through counseling, health assistance and various education initiatives—it will now also will provide free primary medical services one day a week to local residents.

The last items approved were from the consent calendar and included the following appointments to commissions: Christine Caldwell to the Commission on Aging, Courtney Cummings to the Human Rights and Human Relations Commission.

 

5 Comments

  1. Don Gosney

    Although technically correct about Councilmember Beckles leaving early, it would be more accurate if it were to read: “as she left the meeting early, again.”

    She routinely tells us how tired she is before she leaves the meeting early with serious business left on the table. She has even told us all–those still in the room and those watching on TV or online–that she’s too tired to think straight. And then she votes on important issues.

    Granted, she is the only member of the Council with a structured job that she has to get to the following morning, but the job she asked the people to entrust with her calls for members of the Council to actually attend all meetings, read the material before voting on it, listening to the people before making up their minds and to stick around until the end of the meeting.

    Wanting to be a member of the Council is one thing but actually doing the work of the Council is another.

  2. Jovanka Beckles

    Corky Booze takes pride and sadly, actually enjoys taking people to a negative place. That’s very sad for him, for Jovanka Beckles and very sad for Richmond.

  3. Giorgio Cosentino

    As a non-credentialed teacher in Richmond, I didn’t have enough time for my students because I was spending my time procuring materials and developing lesson plans, and many of the lessons turned out to be duds. I was teaching science, but the real experiment in the classroom was me.

    There might be a good use for non-credentialed teachers, but this needs to be scrutinized thoroughly, every step of the way. The success stories do not compensate for possible failures. How are failures and successes measured and documented?

    So far, the discussions I have heard pertaining to this matter have been totally lacking in measurable specifics and the Superintendent said he does not want to comment. If I were the Superintendent, I would be commenting daily, backing my decision.

    If the district believes the use of these teachers is acceptable, then they should walk us through it, citing the supporting data. I’m both a district parent and taxpayer. I think I deserve some of the Superintendent’s time in helping me understand this decision.

    • Giorgio Cosentino

      If I understand correctly, the newest, lowest paid teachers will not receive medical bennies for their family members, but the current teachers do. These same teachers who are making $35,000.00 per year are also paying a hefty amount in union dues, that there is no sliding scale if memory serves me right.

      At some point, the district will be correct, that no one will be applying for jobs, that we will have to accept Peace Corps volunteers to educate our children. Why did the district target a population of teacher that is already being taken advantage of?

      At one school in the district (Verde Elementary), the average teacher salary is $40,000. At another WCCUSD elementary school across the way (Hanna Ranch) in Hercules, the average teachers salary is $67,408 with the district average being around $56k.

      Hanna Ranch is an award winning school. It is one of the only schools that answered item #5 on the School Accountability Report Card, stating the number of non-credentialed teachers at this school. Zero.

      Almost all other schools left this SARC item blank and the district has not provided the total number of non-credentialed teachers in the district, leaving this blank on the SARC. Zero non-credentialed teachers. Experienced teachers as evidenced by salary average. Award winning school. Maybe a connection?

  4. Jennifer (if I may),

    Quite a gig you’ve got here. I cover Richmond (Virginia) City Council and I’m grateful to say nothing quite like this happens around here anymore. It sounds like you’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts to cover. On the good side there’s always something to write about. On the bad you have to listen to this nonsense week in and week out. I have some inkling of what you go through. Hope you are getting paid for your time.

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