He's served as commissioner of welfare reform for former Gov. George Allen. He's helped raise funds for candidates across the political spectrum — Democrats and Republicans.

Walk into his office at Hampton University and you'll see photos of him with President Barack Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush and former Sen. John Warner, among others. There are stacks of books on education.

Reknowned on campus for his tailored suits, polka-dot ties and occasional cowboy boots, Bill Thomas is never one to shy away from giving his opinion.

Thomas serves as associate vice president of governmental relations for Hampton University, part of the university's small council. And over the past two decades, he has become an influential voice in Virginia politics — federal, state and local.

As Virginia is in the midst of examining ways to change its education system, Thomas has gained a reputation for being an outspoken voice for reform, giving scathing assessments of the system in place.

He has his share of critics, but they won't deter him.

Thomas served 12 years on the board of visitors for Christopher Newport University, more than anyone in the university's history.

"In this age of political correctness, someone needs to point out where our society is failing and how we can do better," CNU President Paul Trible said of Thomas.

Ring the alarm

Shortly before the election on May 6, Thomas sat on stage in the Newport News School Administration building with seven candidates vying for the city's School Board at a debate hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Thomas, the moderator, jousted with the candidates on nearly every point, cutting them off at times and injecting commentary when he thought their claims didn't add up.

For some in the audience, it was unclear if Thomas was moderating the debate, or debating the candidates. A few groans were loosed in the cramped meeting room.

His sharpest exchanges were with then-vice chairman Jeff Stodghill, after Thomas said the school division was a failure and no different from school divisions in New York or Chicago.

Thomas said he wanted to "ring the alarm" because of what he called the growing crisis in public schooling.

Several of the candidates were disgruntled as the debate ended, grumbling as they stood in the foyer. The normally placid-demeanored Stodghill walked tersely back into the administration offices lounge area, before emerging a few minutes later.

"I didn't come here and expect a nice calm-water event," Stodghill said. Gary Hunter, who now sits on the School Board, described the debate as "a little hostile."

"A lot of people just deal with the status quo and accept the status quo. But Bill Thomas does not accept the status quo," said Andrew Shannon, head of the Peninsula Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "He doesn't care if they are Democrats or Republicans. If he feels they're ineffective, he calls it as he sees it."

Reform

Thomas pores through the recent Standards of Learning test reports from local school divisions in his spare time. While there's been a major push statewide to reduce the amount of standardized tests at the elementary school level, Thomas thinks eliminating them will water down student education.

"I think that's a bunch of bologna," Thomas said, referring to efforts to eliminate SOLs in subjects such as history for elementary students. "I think the SOL tests are so simple … If you can't pass an SOL test, the public schools should close their schools."

Thomas wants to see more legislation pass through the state allowing schools to cooperate with private entities in the hopes of scoring grants like the ones Newark and San Francisco received from Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg.