The group Agenda Alexandria, now in its seventh year, held a dinner Monday night with the topic “Appointed Vs. Elected School Boards.” Former City Council member David Speck introduced the panel.
“We have former Councilman Lonnie Rich who fought hard to move us to elected school boards; Melvin Miller who served as an appointed school board member, Claire Eberwein who was an elected school board member and Dan Fuller with the National School Boards Association. They are well qualified to provide insight into this discussion,” Speck said.
Rich began by recognizing former Councilman Bill Cleveland who helped wage the battle to move the city to elected school boards. “We began trying to get the issue on the ballot in 1992 and didn’t succeed until 1993,” Rich said. “Our school system was doing poorly under the old system and many of us knew that it was time for a change. Over the past 10 years, our schools have improved. I have two children at Mount Vernon Elementary School, and I can tell you that it is a better school today than it was 10 years ago. I will say that if we had had elected school boards 10 or 12 years ago when I began working for change, I would have fought for appointed boards. We just needed to make a change because what we were doing wasn’t working.”
Miller expressed his reasons for continuing to support appointed school boards. “I was opposed to the idea of elected school boards and I was opposed to the ordinance that adopted elected school boards,” he said. “It wasn’t just about appointed or elected school boards but the system that gave you elected school boards. That system said that the election of school boards had to coincide with the election of City Council. That, I thought, was going to be a problem. It was nice that you didn’t want to talk to 14 people running for Council about education, but try talking to 14 people running for Council and 15 people running for School Board at the same time. I don’t think it creates any more discussion about what’s going on in the schools. A lot of people who are very good people in this community would be willing to serve on a school board but not willing to go out and ask for money to support a campaign to get elected.
“IN ORDER TO go to this system of electing school boards, the city of Alexandria had to go to the Justice Department because of the Voting Rights Act. This basically said you can’t change ways of voting where it makes it detrimental to minorities who are involved in the election process. Clearly, when you set up three districts that was each going to be predominantly white, with no minority districts, you have a problem. After years of work, the City Council had gotten pretty good about ensuring good minority representation on the School Board. I’m not saying that you have to have someone who is black or someone who is Hispanic on the School Board but you do need people who understand a broad spectrum of the student population. Today, we have a system that is 77 percent minority. If that was reversed, we might be here talking about going to an appointed school board,” Miller said.
EBERWEIN SERVED on the first elected school board in 1997. “I am passionate, passionate about elected school boards,” she said. “I believe that people should have a voice and a vote in the education of their children and the expenditure of one third of the city budget. People have the right to vote people on and off. There seems to be a feeling that this board is about as good or as bad as some appointed and some elected boards.”
She also spoke about competition. In 1994, there were 17 candidates for nine seats; in both 1997 and 2000, 15 candidates for nine seats; and in 2003, 12 candidates for nine seats. Twice, in the west end, there have been four candidates for three seats and twice, there has been no competition at all, with three candidates running for three seats. The east end hasn’t done much better, with a maximum of five candidates for three seats. The central district has always had more candidates than the other two. At no time in the 10-year history of elected school boards have there been more than two African-Americans on the board. One elected board was 100 percent white.
“I agree that we need to change the way in which elected school boards are elected,” Eberwein said. “As a matter of fact, I proposed a charter change that would have allowed City Council to select another method. After a very discordant debate, I withdrew my proposal because I did not want to send a charter change to Richmond with a split Council. The charter change I proposed would have allowed us to change the districts, to elect all members at large or to just elect the chairman at large. The point is, it would have allowed us to choose. Maybe someone on Council will reintroduce that charter change this year. The point is, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Change the things in the system that need changed but don’t give up on elected school boards.”
Fuller cited some statistics. Nationally, about 92 percent of all school boards are elected, leaving only eight percent as appointed bodies. “Most of these appointed bodies can be found in large urban areas such as Chicago and Cleveland,” he said. “There have been no studies about the impact of elected or appointed school boards on student achievement. There have been studies that show board cohesion and a supportive community does improve student achievement. Where there are problems, where there are dysfunctions and where the community is not supportive, you will see student achievement suffer. What we are seeing is that both elected and appointed bodies work but the governing body has to work together. There has to be support from businesses in the community and from others in the community to improve student achievement.”
IN RESPONSE TO THAT, Eberwein discussed Alexandria’s experience. “This board and this superintendent are reaping the benefits of the work of previous boards,” she said. “It was an earlier board that passed the Primary Initiative, which has had a substantial impact on student achievement. It was our former superintendent, Dr. Herb Berg, who worked closely with Andrew Blair and other members of the Chamber of Commerce to establish the Alexandria Education Partnership, which brings business leaders into the schools as tutors and mentors.”
Eberwein and other members of the community, including Mayor William D. Euille, have been critical of School Board members and of the superintendent for failing to attend business and community functions and to solicit more involvement from parts of the community that are not engaged. This engagement, according to Fuller, leads not only to improved student achievement but to higher voter turn-out.
“Where groups of senior citizens and others are involved in school systems, you see more interest in elections,” Fuller said. “Also, of course, you see higher voter turn-out where school boards have their own bonding authority.”
While the debate will continue, Rich summed it up. “For the first time since we went to elected school boards, we have a real controversy,” he said. “Let’s face it. This board’s decision to retain the superintendent is controversial. Will that translate to voting them out or not? We will know in a year and a half,” he said.
School Board and City Council elections will next be held in May, 2006.