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!