Parents and guardians of Roanoke school students praised the division for its positives Tuesday night, but made it clear that when it comes to its next superintendent, they want change.

“One who can change and shift the culture to one that is open and inviting,” said one parent who attended a public forum at William Fleming High School.

The forum was one of 11 held by the national search consultants hired by the Roanoke school board to find a successor to Rita Bishop, who is retiring in June.

The other meetings took input from stakeholders including teachers and staff, the business community and more.

Ralph Ferrie of search firm McPherson & Jacobson asked the roughly 50 people present to list the best things about the school system.

Speakers, who did not identify themselves, listed school safety measures, a 90 % graduation rate, dedicated teachers — including millennial Roanokers who returned here to teach — and support from small, nonprofit mentoring groups, among other things.

But when Ferrie asked the crowd what issues a new superintendent would have to address, their frustrations came out.

“There is a culture of fear around teachers giving input, or anybody really who works for Roanoke city schools,” said one woman.

Another described the leadership style in the division as “command and control.”

Multiple speakers said the next superintendent needs to be aware of the racial and economic segregation in the city, and deliver equity across the system with school professionals who reflect the diversity of the community.

“Make it seem like we’re all in it together,” said a woman who identified herself as a teacher, “because some days I feel like we’re not all together.”

“Fairness is not cookie cutter, because I may not need what you need,” said another woman.

Three different people called for consideration of school uniforms to eliminate obvious disparities in income.

“I’m telling you, children are bullied every single day in this school system … for what they don’t have,” said a woman who cited 20 years experience as a school system employee.

Finally, Ferrie asked the attendees to list one or two words to describe what they want in their next superintendent.

The responses included: “progressive,” “accountable,” “collaborative and respectful,” “innovative,” “compassionate,” “reliable and open-minded,” “honest,” “ethical,” “successful in urban education,” “approachable,” “engaged,” “transparent,” “genuine” and a “servant-leader.”

Ferrie said all of the responses from the stakeholder meetings will be collated and reported to the city’s school board, along with those from an anonymous online survey. He said some themes were already clear from the meetings, including those covered Tuesday night.

Some attendees asked for another public meeting later in the hiring process, which will continue into May.

Ferrie said he would forward the request.

Meanwhile, the survey with the same questions covered Tuesday night remains open on the school system’s website at

Matt Chittum covers Roanoke City. A Roanoke native, he’s been at the Roanoke Times for more than two decades, having overcome an inauspicious start with a part-time clerical job.

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