With just about six weeks to go before the November 8 election, proponents of an elected school board in Charlottesville are gearing up for a full-scale campaign to make their case to the voters.
Although the elected-school-board option has succeeded some 105 out 108 attempts when put to Virginia voters as a local referendum, those favoring the shift from an appointed to an elected board are not complacent.
Here's an excerpt from an email circulating among Charlottesville citizens, which apparently originated with City Councilor Rob Schilling, who was elected in 2002 running on a platform that called for an elected school board:
Now that the elected school board referendum has been qualified to be placed on the November ballot, we need your help to get the word out and to make sure that it passes resoundingly!
Here’s what you can do to help:
1. Make a donation to the referendum committee. Checks should be made out to "Citizens for an Elected School Board" or “CFESB” and sent to : CFESB, c/o Rob Schilling, 1406 Holly Road, Charlottesville, VA 22901 (Donations will be used to pay for bumper stickers, yard signs, and ads. We need to raise several thousand dollars - donations in any amount are welcome!)
2. Let me know how many bumper stickers and yard signs you would like, and I will deliver them to you as soon as they are ready.
The debate over an elected school board is already unveiling fissures within the local Democratic party. In an email to George Loper, former City Democratic Committee chairman Lloyd Snook wrote:
If I thought that electing a School Board would assure better decisions, or a better education for our children, my view would be very much different. But I am afraid that what we would actually get would be a greatly elevated level of political activity, with much more speechifying and grandstanding, with no discernible improvement in the quality of education that our children receive. If we elect School Board members, I expect that we will end up with School Board candidates raising and spending thousands of dollars each to get themselves elected, but I doubt very seriously that the electorate will be any better informed when making their choices than the City Councilors who make the selections now.(Snook's lengthy argument is worth reading as a whole.)
In response, Democratic activist Jeffrey Rossman -- who, along with Councilor Schilling, spearheaded the petition drive to put the school board measure on November's ballot -- wrote:
*Lloyd apparently has less faith in the voters of Charlottesville than I do. I trust the voters of the city -- 72 percent of whom voted for John Kerry -- to choose a diverse group of well-qualified candidates for the school board. A city that repeatedly gives the most votes to African-American city councillors is a city that is committed to diversity. Moreover, creationists and intelligent designers are not going to get far in this blue university town, Lloyd's fears notwithstanding.(Again, this short excerpt does not do Rossman's full argument justice, so I recommend visiting loper.org to read the whole thing.)
*Lloyd and I have very different views about the nature of democratically elected institutions. I believe that such institutions tend to be more responsive, to operate more transparently, and to pursue policies that enjoy public support. These beliefs derive from my years of studying democratic and nondemocratic regimes. For all its faults, the democratic system is more stable and, ultimately, effective.
*Lloyd and I also have different views about the democratic political process, which he dismisses as so much "speechifying and grandstanding." By contrast, I believe that the democratic political process, for all its flaws, trains candidates to think about challenging issues and to communicate with and educate the public. This process is one that our schools and the community at large will benefit from if we transition to an elected school board.
In the meantime, a current member of the Charlottesville School Board has been musing that the U.S. Department of Justice may not approve the shift from appointed to elected school boards in the preclearance process required by the Voting Rights Act. In an email to the City Attorney, this board member writes:
The preclearance process is intended to prevent any change in voting that constitutes a retrogression in minority voting rights. Given Charlottesville's history of substantial minority representation on the appointed school board, I think that there is a fair argument that any system for electing board members--whether at-large or by election district--would be likely to reduce minority representation on the board and thus would constitute impermissible "retrogression."This is an odd argument to make. Given that no voters, minority or otherwise, have a chance to elect school board members under the current system, how can that possibly constitute "retrogression in minority voting rights"? This can only be seen as an enhancement of minority voting rights, moving from zero rights to some rights.
We'll see how this all plays out between now and the first week of November. I hope to see a robust -- but civil -- debate throughout the campaign season.
And, by the way, what do our candidates for the House of Delegates in the 57th District think about all this? David Toscano and Tom McCrystal, Charlottesville voters want to know your position on an elected school board.