01/22/15: Ditch wards for Norfolk School Board

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

I WISH I could say I am surprised that half of the Norfolk City Council supports a ward system for an elected School Board, but, sadly, I am not. For once, though, I am glad that we have an eight-member council, where it takes five votes to get things done. We still have a chance to get this right.

I attended both public hearings on the method of electing school boards, as did seven of the eight council members.

The support for an at-large system over wards was overwhelming — and from nearly every corner of Norfolk. Council members who support a ward system do so despite the hearings, and because they think they know what’s better for us than we do.

Paternalism has been the way the council has operated the entire time I’ve lived here — 37 years this August. The record is replete with council actions ignoring what the citizens want.

Norfolk ended up with council wards because it failed to listen . The council had a chance to change the alignment of the wards after the last redistricting — a citizen plan would have drawn lines to allow for a swing ward where either a white or a black candidate could win. The council ignored that plan and instead chose a scheme that maintained the racial status quo.

Instead of thinking about what is best for our city as a whole, some members of the council are still living in an earlier time, when the overriding concern was always race — and they are willing to say so out loud. I’m still smarting over a comment Mayor Paul Fraim made during the redistricting hearings about moving my voting precinct from Ward 6 to Ward 7: It would, the mayor said, make Ward 7 “more white.”

Equally appalling were the comments made by my council representative, Paul Riddick, at the last council meeting.

Riddick, who missed the second of the public hearings on elected school boards, questioned the leadership and was dismissive of the NAACP’s support of a variation of an at-large system. “They don’t have the slightest idea what the at-large system would do,” Riddick said.

Many members of the council think the choice is electing a School Board in wards or at-large. But leadership is thinking of additional options.

It was clear from the two hearings — and since — that only one council member had done that. Ward 5 Councilman Tommy Smigiel has put together a hybrid plan, one that would have some members elected at-large and others by ward.

But because council members talk only among themselves, not with us (attend a public hearing sometime to see what I mean), this plan has not received the public vetting it deserves.

Since the day the signatures were certified for placing the question on the ballot, council members have known they would have to make a decision on how to elect a School Board. They still remained silent.

Leadership would have required the council to hold public meetings before the vote, to inform people about the alternatives and to solicit opinion. The shift to an elected School Board is monumental in Norfolk — and how to elect it is not a question that should be answered without devoting a full measure of thought .

It was not lost on me that some of the speakers at the two public hearings were afraid of an at-large elected board, that such a system would lead to an all-white board from one or two neighborhoods. Smigiel’s plan addresses that. But so does a plan where the members are elected at-large but have a residency requirement for each seat, as in Virginia Beach. Leadership requires that the council think about many options, not just the either/or proposition they have chosen to consider.

There is perhaps another fear at work here, one pointed out to me by a former council member: that voters, given the opportunity to vote for the School Board at-large, will insist on changing Norfolk’s council elections to at-large. If that is in the minds of some council members, I hope they are willing to set it aside for now. Leadership isn’t about self-preservation.

To the four council members who support something other than wards — Smigiel, Andy Protogyrou, Theresa Whibley and Mamie Johnson — I say hold your ground.

To the four members who support wards  — Fraim, Riddick, Barclay Winn and Angelia Williams — I say please consider what you are doing to this city for the long term. It’s not about Norfolk’s past; it’s about our future.

And to the citizens of Norfolk — please contact your council representatives and express your opinion.