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Letter: Hybrid School Board?

To the Editor:

That in the past few months there have been issues of extraordinary concern and increasing public outrage over ACPS is well-understood. I realize that as leaders, the community looks to the City Council for guidance and answers when things go wrong and as the City Council has taxing authority and makes decisions routinely impacting the quality of our private lives, a reliance on us is also well-understood. The questions become what can we do as a body to make things better and convey in a way that is meaningful our belief in a need for change, both short-term and long-term? There are no great theatrics here, no sensational or salacious way to claim a power that doesn’t exist. As I’ve already said, City Council cannot fire Superintendent Sherman … and we can’t make the School Board do so either.

I recently wrote an opinion piece advising that our authority with ACPS is limited to appropriations power. In the short term, we can make categorical allocations as prescribed by state statute rather than make a blanket $250 million+ budget appropriation. However, we have no policy/program authority or line-item veto authority with the schools. To more fully examine where things are and have been recently with the schools budget and to provide a basis for making intelligent categorical allocations if we so choose, I’ve requested a budget memo that will outline by statutory categories expenditures made under the ACPS over the past 5 years. We expect to receive that any day now and the same will then be found on the city’s website with other budget materials.

To effect a more long-term change, City Council can request a charter change from the General Assembly that augments the school board composition. Whether there is a prevailing appetite or perceived need to do so either by the City Council or the public at-large, no one can say. I have recently given some thought to the value of a hybrid school board, partially council-appointed and partially elected.

The last time Alexandria contemplated changing from an elected to an appointed board, there was an awful lot of civic engagement … and even angst. Suffice it to say that even in the absence of considering a composition change, with recent reports regarding ACPS, there is angst now. In an effort to gauge the pleasure of the public, I invite consideration of whether City Council should vote to have an advisory referendum item placed on the November ballot so that we may better understand public opinion on whether the school board should be an elected-appointed hybrid.

Should the results of a referendum question show that the public prefers a hybrid board, I would hope that the sitting City Council, as one of its final acts would seek a charter change during the 2013 General Assembly Session to effect the same. While this change would not augment the 2012 elections, to the extent that board composition is construed as a systemic issue, this long-term change could prove advantageous in addressing public concern. Please feel free to share your thoughts. I can be reached via e-mail at alicia.hughes@alexandriava.gov.

Alicia Hughes

Alexandria City Councilwoman