For members of the Alexandria School Board, five-to-four votes have become a way of life. Since taking office a year ago, board members have been at each other’s throats — disagreeing on policy issues while clashing with each other personally during marathon meetings. Recent months have seen vocally angry crowds gather at the School Board’s chamber on the West End, sometimes shouting at each other in the restrooms and hallways of the division headquarters. Even the annual organization meeting revealed deep disagreements, with former Chairwoman Claire Eberwein being chosen as the board’s new chairwoman in a five-to-four vote. One of her first acts upon returning to power was to ask for the creation of a code of conduct for members of the public who speak at School Board meetings.
"I know the City Council adopted a code of conduct after they had some rather tumultuous meetings," said Eberwein shortly after taking the gavel.
The public has been restless lately. After former Chairman Arthur Peabody failed to consult four members of the School Board before informing Superintendent Rebecca Perry that a five-vote-majority was interested in getting rid of her, he denied members of the public an opportunity to speak on the matter before the vote was cast. That prompted three impassioned and late-night School Board meetings in which speakers praised and castigated the superintendent as well as a majority known alternatively as the "backroom five" and the "fantastic five" — depending on the perspective of the speaker.
"We’re going to have to work through our differences," said Francis Chase, president of the city’s teachers’ union, who challenged the legality of the board’s recent decisions. "We have to make this work for the sake of the kids."
Yet the anger and frustration of the School Board’s recent actions have prompted others to take more drastic measures. Several have banded together online to form AlexandriaKids.org, a grassroots group that has been highly critical of the School Board’s recent actions. Even before Eberwein was elected as chairwoman the group held a weekend meeting to discuss how to proceed with a recall effort aimed at members of the five-vote majority who they say broke several laws concerning disclosure and notification.
"We’re going to keep on trucking on the recall effort," said Victor Glasberg, a noted civil-rights attorney who plans to file five recall petitions in Circuit Court. "One would have hoped that this board would have has less of a tin ear than George W. Bush in selecting a new chairman who was not one of the five members who thrust the school division into chaos. But they didn’t do that."
AS THEY PREPARE FOR summer recess, School Board members find themselves in the midst of troubling times. Last year’s budget process broke down almost entirely, making its way to City Hall only after a five-to-four majority narrowly approved the document. Then a series of policy issues divided board members, who disagreed on everything from opening honors classes to ensuring diversity on advisory committees. Now a recall petition threatens to prolong the hostilities indefinitely.
"I think a recall effort will be very disruptive," said Charles Wilson, who was unanimously elected as the new vice chairman in Monday’s organizational meeting. "My opinion is that we should get on with the business at hand."
At the beginning of Monday’s organizational meeting, School Board member Eileen Cassidy Rivera nominated Wilson for the chairmanship. Calling Wilson — the only member of the previous board to stand for reelection last year — "the elder statesman" of the contentious board, she praised Wilson’s willingness to act as a mediator between warring members of the School Board. Only four members supported Wilson for chairman: Rivera, Wilson, Ronnie Campbell and Sheryl Gorsuch.
"His healing powers are going to be needed," said Rivera. "His candor, honesty and integrity have earned my respect."
After the effort submitting Wilson’s name for chairman failed, the motion nominating Eberwein received the votes of Yvonne Folkerts, Blanche Maness, Scott Newsham, Arthur Peabody and Eberwein herself. Wilson said his unanimous support for the vice chairmanship was a promising sign for the future, a first step toward a new future that might not be as contentious as the recent past. During a discussion of the board’s schedule, Wilson complimented the new chairwoman on her willingness to set a new tone of inclusion.
"I see this as a positive sign early in your chairmanship," said Wilson.