Board chair scolds W-JCC Board for haste in Rawls Byrd vote

Contact Reporterjmckinnon@vagazette.com

JAMES CITY— The Williamsburg-James City County School Board's unexpected decision to rename Rawls Byrd Elementary School drew the ire of Board Chair Jim Kelly (Jamestown), who chastised his fellow board members at Tuesday night's meeting.

"How we do our work matters. If we govern and do our work with consideration and thoughtfulness, the stakeholders both inside and outside of our organization will think of the school system as efficient and effective," he said. "If we do our work sloppy without appropriate thoughtfulness and with too much haste, a different impression is given to our stakeholders."

Kelly was referring to the board's decision on May 24 to rename Rawls Byrd Elementary School – a school that was named for the district's former superintendent who opposed the racial integration of the schools.

The debate over the name played out this spring as several people who had grown up during Byrd's tenure urged the board to change the name. Many told stories of Byrd being cruel to black students.

On May 24, the board decided to vote on the name change, even though it was not listed as an action item on the agenda.

Kelly abstained, saying the community needed more advance notice of the decision. The rest of the board voted, and a motion to "begin the process" of changing the name passed 6-0.

Other board members were not pleased with Kelly's remarks.

Sandy Young (Berkeley) described Kelly's remarks as "an interesting exercise in having a comeuppance."

"Did you see some looks on the board that looked shocked?" she said. "I wasn't too happy with him, but he is the school board chair. I think as a school board chair you need to support the decisions of the school board whether you agree with them or not."

Holly Taylor (Stonehouse) echoed Young's opinion.

"I was taken aback by (the remarks)," Taylor said. "I think it would be hypocritical of me to say anything negative publicly about him, but I do think an effective leader will praise in public and reprimand in private."

Jim Beers (Roberts) said he was surprised by the statement because it ran counter to what he said Kelly had instructed the new board members when they came on in January.

"(When I was) a new board member he pointed out to the new board that we can disagree, but once a decision has been made, if the majority of the group supports it, you make no comment. You gotta support it anyway," Beers said.

In the days following the board's decision, Rawls Byrd principal Karen Swann said the community was caught off guard by the board's decision. And several students said they did not know who the historic Rawls Byrd was or why their school would get a new name.

"This decision came quickly without input from our learning community. And, I apologize for how this information is coming to our staff, families and most importantly, children," Swann wrote in a letter that went home to parents.

On Tuesday night Kelly also apologized to the Rawls Byrd community for the board's actions.

"I want to apologize to faculty and staff and students of Rawls Byrd who arrived at school on that Wednesday and became aware of the action this board had taken," Kelly said. "They…had to communicate and manage the 600 students who were taken by surprise by our actions, some of which had to take SOLs that day. Some of the students were moved to tears that their school was going to be renamed."

Vice-chair Kyra Cook (Williamsburg), who voted in favor of the May 24 motion, said she had received critical feedback from community members who said the board appeared "disorganized" during the name-change process.

"It is important for the board to conduct business in a way that doesn't take votes that aren't publicly noticed," she said. "If something is time sensitive and not on our agenda, do a special-call meeting. It is a freedom of information issue."

She declined to comment on Kelly's remarks, but said, "I told Jim what I think and that is the only thing that matters."

After Tuesday night's meeting, Kelly said he supported the decision to change the name, but he wishes the board had handled it differently.

"If we had put it on our agenda, waited a couple weeks and had a good communication plan, I think it would have been just fine," Kelly said.

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341.

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