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Controversy Brews Over District Boundaries

Special school board election draws concerns from citizens.

Chief Judge Donald Haddock has issued a writ of election to hold a special election to replace School Board member Dan Goldhaber but there is controversy over the district boundaries in which the election will be held.

Haddock was responding to a notice from the Alexandria School Board over a vacancy. The judge asked for, and received, guidance on district boundaries for this special election from the city attorney, according to officials.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union has written a letter to Alexandria City Manager Philip Sunderland expressing concern about the upcoming special election to fill the seat that Dan Goldhaber’s resignation created on the School Board. The letter suggests that the city should not go forward with the election unless the city asks the Circuit Court to amend its writ of election to return the district boundaries to those that existed before new precinct lines were drawn last year.

At any rate, the letter says the election should be delayed until the issues can be resolved to ensure that every voter has an opportunity to participate in the election.

The guidance was necessary because School Board districts have not been redrawn since precinct boundaries were changed after the 2000 census. The census created malapportioned districts because of a shift in the city’s population to the west end.

The writ of election specifies that the election will be held on March 19 and will include voters in the following seven precincts: James K. Polk School, Patrick Henry School, Charles E,. Beatley, Jr., South Port, Samuel Tucker School, William Ramsay Recreation Center and John Adams School. These precincts most closely approximate the old School Board district. Using the old district boundaries was impossible because that would have required splitting precincts, triggering a need to obtain U. S. Department of Justice approval. City officials do not believe that Justice approval is necessary under the scheme that the judge has ordered.

“We are very concerned as citizens,” said Susan Johnson, a member of the School Board who represents the West End. Under the guidelines that Haddock has issued, Johnson and her neighbors will be unable to vote in the special election. “A number of voters have been disenfranchised here and we don’t believe that this is the right way to go about things. There are procedures and they need to be followed.”

Johnson believes that City Council should draw new district boundaries based on the census data and then consider the boundaries for the special election.

“What if someone from the Polk precinct decides to run in this special election, is elected and then finds out that he or she can’t run in 2003 because redistricting has moved Polk into another district,” she said. “We can avoid all of that just by doing what should be done. We are putting the cart before the horse.”

Election officials contend that City Council was statutorily required to redraw the School Board districts by Dec. 31, 2001. “If they had just done what they were required to do we would not be in this position,” said V. Rodger Digilio, a member of the School Board. “Since they didn’t, I guess this is as good a solution as any.”

Councilwoman Claire Eberwein, who urged City Council to act on this matter last year, did not know about the new boundaries until Haddock issued his ruling. “I was not consulted on any part of the city plan that was proposed to the Circuit Court,” Eberwein said. “Nor was I aware that such a plan would be proposed. Like many, I received the memo after the fact. I have been hearing from a number of citizens who are extremely unhappy with how the entire process has been handled and, particularly, with regard to the special election boundary lines.”

Johnson and her neighbors are considering their options. “We certainly are looking into all of our alternatives,” she said. “We will make a decision about what to do before the candidate filing deadline on Feb. 19, because we want to take action before the election and not protest the election after it is held.”

Johnson does want to assure citizens that the eight remaining Board members are representing the interests of the city’s public school children. “Anyone with a concern can call any of us,” she said. “If the concern relates to District C, (the West End) Steve Kenealy and I are very willing to respond.”

The deadlines for the special election are as follows: Feb. 19, candidate filing deadline; March 5, voter registration deadline; March 16, absentee voting; March 19, special election.

There will also be a meeting of the School Board, City Council and the Electoral Board on Feb. 13, to discuss redistricting in general.