Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Whither the Charlottesville School Board?

This morning's Daily Progress is reporting that Charlottesville's City Council heard last night from citizens about the candidates they support for appointment to three vacant school board seats. WCAV-TV reported last night on its 11 o'clock newscast that the turnout was rather low, considering that voters have no direct role in selecting school board members and their only influence can be exercised through the open hearing process. On-air correspondent Elizabeth Donatelli reported that only "about twenty-five people took advantage of the public hearing and spoke on behalf of their favorite candidates."

The Daily Progress article also notes that the public hearing was oddly timed, given that Charlottesville High School held its commencement exercises on Monday night, leading to an unavoidable conflict for many teachers, parents, and students who are concerned about the future of the School Board and the city school system.

City Council members also discussed, but did not schedule, a second public hearing after councilor Rob Schilling said Charlottesville High School’s graduation on Monday night likely prevented some people from attending the hearing. Schilling also repeated his call for an elected School Board.

“Why are we appointing School Board members instead of letting the public have a real voice in the process by directly electing School Board via a ward- or district-based election process?” Schilling asked. “We can no longer foster the complete lack of direct accountability to the public, which our appointed School Board members currently enjoy.”
I have obtained a copy of Councilor Schilling's complete remarks. Here is what he said at last night's City Council meeting:
I would like to begin my remarks by acknowledging and thanking all of those who came before us this evening. The purpose of a public hearing is to “hear” the public, and I hope that we as a body have heard you.

I am concerned that for some reason, this public hearing was scheduled on the same night and at roughly the same time as the Charlottesville High School graduation ceremony. This scheduling conflict most likely precluded the participation of many interested citizens who are in some way closely affiliated with a CHS graduate. Even our City Manager, Mr. O’Connell, cannot be present here, due to his son’s graduation tonight. Through this scheduling error, we have potentially denied many members of the public an opportunity for public expression. What an unfortunate oversight. Thankfully there is still time to rectify this situation.

In considering the comments that we did hear tonight, I am not entirely certain how they are received by City Council. Will councilors weigh the number and the persuasiveness of the received comments in order to decide whom to appoint to the board? Or, is this hearing merely a “courtesy” to the public, wherein councilors acknowledge comments with a nod, and then go on to appoint whomever they had previously decided to choose?

If it is the latter, then we should make this clear to the public. But, if it is the former, and this council is sincerely considering whom to appoint to the school board based upon comments received from the public, then we must ask ourselves: “Why are we appointing School Board members instead of letting the public have a real voice in the process by directly electing the school board via a ward- or district-based election process?”

If public input is so valuable and is strongly considered in the school board appointment process, why appoint at all? Do we not trust the citizens of this community, the citizens who elected this very body, with the decision of who should run the city schools, as most localities do across the Commonwealth and across the country? Or do we deem only some of our citizens worthy of trust? We should ask: Why is this council so hesitant to relinquish the power of appointment? Are we five that smart, that good, that intuitive?

It is clear, upon reviewing the many comments I’ve received from residents across the political and socio-economic spectrum, that this council, and previous councils have failed the public, in that we have maintained and supported an appointment process that has left the public dissatisfied and that ultimately has harmed some of our most vulnerable citizens: the children of Charlottesville.

We can no longer afford to allow a $60 million dollar organization, entrusted with the futures of our children, to be run by political appointees who may in fact be placed because of patronage rather than qualification. We can no longer foster the complete lack of direct accountability to the public, which our appointed school board members currently enjoy. We can no longer tolerate a failing “underclass” in our Charlottesville City Schools; we require school board members with a strong and workable vision that is clearly communicated and acceptable to the public whom they hope to serve.

And, thus, we can no longer pretend that one private 15-minute interview with council, and four or five two-minute replies at one public forum adequately reveal the qualification or aptitude of any particular candidate for a position on the Charlottesville City School Board. There is simply too much at stake and the citizens of Charlottesville deserve better than this.

A change here is long overdue, as it has become painfully obvious this year that we as a council, do not “know any better” than you, the citizens of this community. There is nothing “magic” about any of us that would allow us to make a school board appointment superior to that any citizen carefully weighing the issues would make, should you have the opportunity to vote for school board members. If we as a council truly value public input as we say we do, then we should truly value public input by letting the public make the decision regarding who is best suited to direct the education of our children. I trust the public, and, as I have often said, I favor an open process wherein the community elects its school board members.

I want to acknowledge Mr. Jeffrey Rossman, a member of the local Democratic Party, for following the courage of his convictions by certifying and circulating a petition that would allow the citizens of Charlottesville to vote on whether they would like to have an elected or an appointed School Board. This is a nonpartisan effort with bipartisan support.

In conclusion, for Council’s consideration, I will now make two brief motions that I believe will address some of the concerns expressed in my preceding statement:

1) In order to allow a voice for the many who were unable to attend tonight due to a scheduling conflict, I move that City Council establish a 2nd public hearing on School Board Applicants, to be held at the next regularly scheduled Council meeting, June 20.

2) In order that the public may have a greater sense of confidence in the School Board appointments ultimately made by this body, I move that City Council hold all upcoming interviews of current potential School Board appointees in an open session meeting wherein the public would be allowed to observe.

It may be noteworthy that local Democratic activist David RePass, who served recently on the City Council-appointed elections task force, has endorsed the idea of an elected school board, despite virulent opposition from most of the local Democratic party establishment and the four Democrats on City Council. RePass wrote to George Loper:
Simply put, the current system of selecting the Charlottesville School Board violates a fundamental principle of democratic governance. The School Board is not accountable to the people. The only way to make it accountable is to elect it.
The bipartisan group of voters and taxpayers who are circulating a petition to put a measure on the ballot in November to change Charlottesville's school board from an appointed to an elected body will be out in force on primary election day, June 14. I have heard reports that there will be a table outside each polling place with petitions to be signed, and each table will be staffed by at least one Republican and at least one Democrat.

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