10/30/14: Big question on Norfolk’s Nov. 4 ballot

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

“Shall the method for selecting the school board be changed from appointment by the governing body to direct election by the voters?”

THE VERY LAST ITEM on the ballot in Norfolk next Tuesday is the question about elected school boards. Norfolk is one of the last localities in Virginia to have a council-appointed school board. I will be voting in favor.

I’ve supported every effort to bring the question of elected school boards to the voters since the General Assembly first made it an option in 1992. Two arguments persuaded me: inclusivity and accountability.

Norfolk has had some great appointed school board members — and some bad ones. When elected, there will be good ones — and bad ones. The difference is the pool of potential School Board members.

The Norfolk City Council has always chosen School Board members from a very small pool of candidates. To their credit, in recent years, the pool has gotten a little larger and the selection process a little more transparent. In the end, though, the choices haven’t changed much — they still come from what I like to call the “acceptable candidates list.”

The list is more exclusive than inclusive. The names are familiar ones because they are recycled from one appointed board or commission to the next. It’s really hard to get on the list. Newcomers to the city are almost never included because council members don’t know them. Others are excluded for various reasons. I’ve heard a number of complaints from potential candidates that they can’t even get an interview.

An elected school board opens up the candidate pool to virtually every registered voter in the city. Anyone who decides to run will be interviewed — by the voters. You can’t get more inclusive than that.

The issue of accountability is a significant one. Let’s be honest: an appointed School Board is really only accountable to the City Council. Sure, the council is — at least theoretically — accountable to the voters but Norfolk’s has, rightly, taken a hands-off approach with the School Board. That’s why we’ve had the revolving door of school superintendents. That’s why we have had the policy of only the School Board chairman speaking on behalf of the board.

Supporting the veneer of accountability was Norfolk’s boneheaded policy of two-year School Board member terms. All that did was create a revolving door of members — and the loss of institutional memory. The School Board was always in learning mode, never acting mode. They finally increased it to three years, but that is still less than other school boards across the state.

If the council isn’t going to be accountable for the School Board, let us do it. Elected School Board members serve four-year terms, and not at the whim of a benevolent council.

Opponents of elected school boards like to point out that they lack taxing authority. None of the elected school boards in Virginia has such authority; it would require a change to the state constitution. While I agree that taxing authority would make sense and would enhance accountability , it isn’t going to happen any time in the near future. Other localities with elected school boards have managed to make it work without it.

I have no illusions that an elected School Board will magically increase Norfolk students’ test scores. The research on student performance under appointed versus elected school boards is decidedly mixed. Norfolk’s public schools didn’t begin to falter overnight, and I don’t expect them to improve overnight. But our schools are going in the wrong direction.

In 2005, Norfolk Public Schools won the national Broad Prize for Urban Education. In the press release announcing it, the Broad Foundation wrote, “Norfolk’s success can be attributed to the district’s strong leadership, and the solid partnership with the school board, unions, and community. It is clear that they have made education a priority for all students, and that commitment is evident in their academic results.”

These days, Norfolk’s public schools are counted among the worst in the state. That is an indictment not just of the School Board, but of all of us.

We can do better. We must do better.

I believe voting yes on this ballot question is the first step. I look forward to a board that is representative of the citizenry of our city and accountable to us.