Monthly Two Cents

SUPPORT ELECTED SCHOOL BOARDS

By James Doran

Back in December 2012, I had my first introduction to Hanover County politics. With the school board seat for my district coming up for appointment in 2013, I decided to reach out to the person that would be doing the appointing — Cold Harbor Supervisor Elton Wade. When I talked to Elton about throwing my hat in the ring, he was nice enough on the phone and agreed to meet with me after the holidays. 

That meeting never occurred. The reason it didn’t occur is that the next issue of the Mechanicsville Local featured a story about Norman Sulser and how he thought he had a  “handshake “ deal with Elton dating back 20 years and should be appointed to the school board as his reward. Elton said he didn’t remember making that agreement, but went with Norm’s word and appointed him in June 2013. As you might imagine, that experience left a sour taste in my mouth and made me wonder why Hanover appoints its school board members rather than elects them.

Roughly eight years later, I’m still convinced that an elected school board is in the best interest of the citizens of Hanover County. More importantly, I’m convinced that an elected school board is in the best interests of the 17,000 schoolchildren in Hanover. I ran for the Board of Supervisors seat in Cold Harbor in 2019 and one of the main reasons was that position currently appoints the school board member from our district. I’m not pushing for an elected school board with designs on running for it myself. I want the citizens in Hanover to have more of a say in who makes these decisions.

A brief history lesson on appointed school boards in Virginia, courtesy of the ACLU of Virginia. In a report dated in 2009, they stated:

Appointed school boards are part of the legacy of Virginia’s post-Reconstruction period, during which the state’s white leaders sought to limit the political influence of African Americans. It culminated in the infamous Constitutional Convention of 1901, which was devoted to codifying Jim Crow practices. At that well-documented gathering, Virginia’s leading statesmen amended the Constitution to require literacy tests and poll taxes and reinstituted felon disfranchisement. They also rejected attempts to allow elected school boards in Virginia.

Between 1918 and 1927, four separate state legislative studies concluded that appointed school boards should be abandoned in favor of elected school boards. But the General Assembly refused to follow the recommendations and continued to ban school board elections.

In 1947, the General Assembly finally capitulated to the wishes of Arlington County by passing a law permitting that one jurisdiction to elect its school board members. But even this refreshing turnabout had a distressing ending. In 1956, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Arlington’s school board voted to integrate the school system. The General Assembly reacted immediately by repealing the law allowing elected school boards in Arlington.

In 1987, the ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s ban on elected school boards as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The ACLU demonstrated that African Americans were significantly underrepresented in many of the jurisdictions with large African American populations.

The ACLU lost their case, but in the process exposed the shamefully racist philosophy that spawned appointed school boards in Virginia and then nurtured them for an additional 90 years.

Several years after the ACLU lawsuit, in 1992, the General Assembly finally voted to allow elected school boards. The bill was signed into law by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
Since jurisdictions were given the opportunity for elected school boards in 1992, 114 of the 135 localities in Virginia have made the switch. Hanover County is the largest school division that still appoints its school board members. It is also the only one in the entire Richmond region to do so.

Speaking specifically on policy issues that have come before the school board recently, the case for an elected board is made stronger. The first instance is the school board’s insistence on keeping the names of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson on the high school and middle school in the eastern part of the county. 

The board voted in 2018 to keep the names. One of the two board members that wanted to change the names (Marla Coleman) was not reappointed to her seat when it came up in 2019. Her vote was the reason Supervisor Sean Davis replaced her with George Sutton.

Later in 2018, the local chapter of the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the county to try and get the county to change the names. Rather than come to some sort of compromise with the NAACP, the school board decided to use county taxpayer dollars to fight the lawsuit. In early 2020, the lawsuit was dismissed by a like-minded judge and the NAACP was planning to appeal. 

During this time, there were two unplanned vacancies on the school board, and new appointments needed to be made. These two new members, as well as the members from the Ashland and Chickahominy districts, voted to finally change the names in a 4-3 vote. Promptly after the vote was taken, both supervisors that had appointed the new members expressed their displeasure in a public board meeting, wishing that the names had remained the same. That this was even an issue still being discussed in 2020 is a frustrating reality in Hanover.

Another issue that came before the school board in 2020 was the establishment of an equity policy. The equity community advisory board had done a great deal of work in coming up with the policy, incorporating language from similar policies around the commonwealth. When it came time to vote to adopt the policy, the school board struck out the most important section of the policy and replaced it with watered-down language. I’ll let you be the judge — here’s the section as it was planned by the equity board:

 “To that end, the division superintendent and all employees will create a barrier-free (positive) educational experience for all students, that accepts and acknowledges their individuality based on race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, cognitive/physical/emotional abilities, English language fluency, gender religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other personal characteristics."

And here’s what that section was changed to by the school board during a meeting:

 “To that end, the division superintendent and all employees will create a positive educational experience for all students. “
This change was done without any prior knowledge given to the public, without hearing any public comment on the change, and without any pushback from the school administration. I’ll never forget the defeated looks on the faces of those that had come to the meeting to advocate for the equity policy that they thought was going to be approved.

A recent survey conducted by the HDC asked our members if they favored an elected school board. Of those that responded to the question with a  “Yes “ or  “No,” 93% stated their preference for an elected board while 7% preferred appointed.

The process for getting a school board changed from appointed to elected seems simple but it will be a lot of work. We need to gather the signatures of 10% of registered voters in Hanover County by July 14. That’s 8,000 signatures based on this past year’s voter rolls. 

If we are successful in getting the necessary number of signatures, then the question  “Should Hanover County change its method of school board member assignment from appointed to elected?” will be on the Nov. 2 general election ballot. We have already received a commitment from over 60 volunteers that will be collecting signatures when and where they can, given the current state of the pandemic. 

We’re hopeful that by late spring, there will be the ability to gather many signatures at various events in the county. If you’d like to help, please let me know by emailing me at jpdoran1@yahoo.com or call/text 804-514-7297. 

Thanks for your time!

GROWING OUR PARTY

By Rachel Levy

Did “defund the police” and “socialism” scare some Democratic voters away from voting? I do not see any evidence that that happened, nor, frankly, do I see any evidence that any Democrats actually ran on those concepts. From what I saw, Democrats ran on our issues, not by reacting to a Republican caricature of Venezuela socialism. What is important to Democratic success vis a vis messaging in future elections? 1. Running a campaign that speaks to constituents in the district Democratic candidates are going to represent. 2. Addressing issues that will make constituents' lives and communities better. 3. Ensuring that all Democratic and potentially Democratic voters who are eligible to vote can and do.

The Democratic Party is a sum of its parts, and we are a big-tent party. This inclusiveness is one advantage we hold over the Republican Party which has been captured by far-right xenophobia. But a big tent means that not all candidates are going to appeal to all Democrats across the country. Democrats should run on doing work and championing policies that will make people’s lives better, starting with the most vulnerable in our communities, and which policies those are may differ between districts. And we must present those in succinct and accessible talking points. More just, equitable policies and programs and services and public democratic institutions do not mean the more privileged give up anything; it means we all win. What is good for the most vulnerable among us, is good for all of us. If their rights are protected, if their needs are met, then the needs of the less vulnerable will be met as well. That is not an ism, that is not a message, that is good politics. Such an approach will also grow our local Democratic committees.

Finally, all the fine-tuned, compelling, succinct messaging means nothing if we do not work actively to protect people’s sacred right to vote and if we do not do what it takes to get out the vote. This means supporting legislation that fulfills the idea that voting is a right, not a privilege—making it easier and faster to vote; being vigilant against anti-democratic forces who seek to suppress the right to vote, particularly of BIPOC and younger voters; getting out the vote with urgency; and, finally, giving reluctant voters compelling reason to vote in the first place, i.e., championing and communicating support of policies that will make their lives better.

RECYCLING OUR SIGNS

By Caroline Cooke

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is one of our themes — or it should be. As good Democrats, we also want to be good stewards of Mother Earth. 
Campaign signs are a recycling challenge because they’re made from multiple materials. Disposing of them requires taking them apart and disposing of each portion based on its material. The good news is that we have a plan to collect the recyclables.

CAN recycle in Virginia:
Yard sign soft, plastic sleeves
Yard sign metal wire stands (that the sleeves slide onto)
Yard sign metal wire stands (that corrugated sign fits onto)

CAN NOT recycle in Virginia, and should be taken to dumpster:
Sturdy, corrugated plastic signs of any size
Plastic coated cardboard (paper) signs of any size

KEEP to reuse: steel stakes for larger signs

I’m volunteering again this year to collect the soft, plastic sleeves on Sunday, Nov. 8 after Election Day for a Dem friend in a nearby county. Her recycling project, now two years old, has a direct community benefit for the Cartersville Garden Club. And we can help bring the plastic full circle.

What the Cartersville Garden Club does: Any collected recyclable, soft plastic is taken to their intermediary, which then ships it to Trex, which converts it to wood-alternative lumber. For every 500 lbs. of recyclable plastic the product is returned to the club in the form of a bench. The club selects the location. Four benches have been placed thus far. Let’s help the plastic come full circle!

We have a plan to collect recyclables on Nov. 8. I’ve reached out to each District Chair for their help in asking the precinct captains (or other volunteers) to collect the yard signs from each precinct. Please separate the pieces, putting plastics in a larger trash bag for ease of handling and zip-tying the wires for ease of handling. As we go to press, several collection points are finalized, some await coordination. I’ll start the morning in South Anna.

If you got a yard sign individually, please help to recycle by getting the plastic sleeve and wire to either your District Chair (or the volunteer for precinct signs) or me, before Nov. 8. We’ll work it out. I can be reached best at ctcooke9108@gmail.com. If you’re headed to Ashland for something, our Chair Dan McGraw will accept these small signs at his side porch, 100 Dewey St., Ashland. If all else fails, please take it to your usual soft plastics and metal recycling points.

Many thanks!

Amendment 1 Does Not Create an Independent Redistricting Commission

By Cathie Lee

In a healthy democracy, citizens choose their representatives, not the other way around. A fair, impartial districting process keeps politicians accountable and secures policies and laws the public needs like affordable health care and quality education. However, the redistricting proposal on the ballot this November, Virginia’s Constitutional Amendment #1, does not achieve that goal. Instead, Amendment 1 institutionalizes an already broken two-party, highly partisan system.

Here’s why. A truly independent redistricting commission would need experts to analyze the citizenry and draw fair and unbiased voting maps that accurately reflect the population. Imagine the expertise a commission would need to perform that task. It might include a cartographer, demographer, mathematician, psychologist, sociologist, mediator, political scientist, labor organizer, business leader, educator, diversity professionals and minority representatives. Throw in a lawyer or two to explain election law.

The Redistricting Commission created by Amendment 1 does not include any of the above experts. Instead, it consists of 16 members — eight legislators (four Democrats and four Republicans) and eight citizens. The eight citizens will be chosen by retired judges from lists provided by the legislators, meaning the Democrat and Republican parties. Will the two major political parties put independents, educators or environmentalists on their citizen lists? No. Common sense dictates the citizen members will be fierce party advocates and/or big donors because political power is at stake. Power is too important to allow impartial citizens in the room.

It gets worse. Two members of the “Independent Commission” can block whatever map is created and send the entire redistricting process to the Virginia Supreme Court. The justices of the Virginia Supreme Court, currently two women and five men, are appointed by the General Assembly to 12-year terms. They are frequently reappointed, and many do not leave until required at the age of 73 when they can remain on senior status with a lighter caseload. Virginia’s bench is stacked with conservatives.  The earliest possible appointment is 2022. The court has a long history of decisions favoring Republican causes: big business and government agencies or boards at the expense of citizens.

Contrary to popular belief, judges are not independent, apolitical people. Remember, they are appointed by the General Assembly. They are lawyers, typically from large firms, noticed because of their political prowess, connections and contributions to the cause. I’ve worked for judges. Today, I make my living trying to persuade them. It’s a frustrating profession because too often judges know the result they want and find the case(s) or legal maxims to justify their decision.

Recent history is telling. In a 2019 suit, the Hanover NAACP alleged that minority students attending schools with confederate general names were denied their right to an education free from discrimination and compelled speech. Requiring students, particularly athletes, to wear names and mascots that dehumanized them violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The NAACP’s complaint was brilliant and based on solid legal theories. Senior Judge Robert Payne dismissed the case without a trial, deciding, in part, a two-year statute of limitations applied. The NAACP was too late because the time to sue expired two years after the schools were named, around 1960 and 1971.

Is that really the law? Arguably, no. Ignoring the fact that the parents of the students seeking relief may not have been born 50-60 years ago making it impossible for them to sue, Judge Payne ignored the continuing harm rule. This legal doctrine begins a statute of limitations when the harm ends. The harm was still happening when the NAACP filed suit, so it was clearly timely. Judge Payne is a 79-year-old white man selected by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Does it surprise anyone he relied on a shaky statute of limitations instead of the continuing harm rule to support his decision?  

Judicial politics have consequences beyond school names. The 2017 House of Delegates race in Newport News saw Democrat Shelly Simonds beat Republican David Yancey by one vote. The Republicans found a ballot that had been thrown out because the voter marked both candidates’ names. The Republicans asked a three-judge panel to count the discarded ballot for Yancey. Judge Bryant L. Sugg announced the decision that the voter intended to pick Yancey even though he/she marked both bubbles and put a stroke through Simonds, like the stroke the voter put through the Republican candidate for Governor, Ed Gillespie. The judges’ decision meant the winner had to be decided by coin toss and Yancey won. The Democrats also had a ballot they wanted the panel to rule on, but like Judge Payne, the panel said the Democrats were too late. Guess who recommended and helped appoint Judge Suggs? Yep, Delegate David Yancey, who won the coin toss and the House of Delegates seat. Did Judge Suggs disclose the potential conflict or recuse himself?  Nope.

So, can you really count on eight legislators and eight citizens selected by legislators or the Virginia Supreme Court to draw fair and impartial redistricting maps? Do you want a Redistricting Commission with those members embedded in the Virginia Constitution? As you weigh your decision, look at the ballot from the Newport News debacle. Should this vote have been counted for Yancey or thrown out? What if the justices add one more Republican house into a district? Do judges really make fair and impartial decisions blind to parties or politics? Sadly, my life experience requires me to vote NO to Amendment 1 in the hope that we will get a truly independent Redistricting Commission with the impartial experts we desperately need to draw fair election maps.

BREAK OUT THE POSTCARDS

By Don Barth

POSTCARD PEOPLE! Get those pens ready; packets of cards and address labels are ready for you!

Each packet has 30 cards because that's how many addresses are on one sheet.

Needless to say, we are not gathering in one place to write postcards. People can write postcards from their own homes. Porch Pick-up will be available in Mechanicsville, Ashland and Montpelier. Contact Colleen Berry at lasseire@gmail.com for pickup locations.

As to stamps, writers are being asked to provide postage, if possible. It is recommended using a first-class stamp ($.55 or Forever) to guarantee delivery. These are larger 5x7 cards, so there is more space to write! If anyone can't write, but wants to donate stamps or vice versa, this will be coordinated.

Our message: There will be a sample paper attached to each packet. You can write for the entire BLUE TICKET (Elect Biden/Harris for President/Vice President, Re-elect Mark Warner for Senator, Elect Qasim Rashid for House of Representative) or any version of them. Write from your heart, what speaks to you about the importance of this election.

We are writing as PRIVATE CITIZENS, not as a part of HDC or any campaign (postcards are labeled with that message).

Keep it POSITIVE! Please mail them yourselves between September 1 and October 15. Remind people about no-reason-needed, IN-PERSON early voting that starts September 18 at the elections offices in Hanover (these are all Hanover addresses right now) or absentee mail-in ballots.