01/29/15: Wrong vote on school wards

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

I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. —Thomas Jefferson, 1820  

THEY TOOK it away from us.

The majority of the Norfolk City Council voted to elect the city’s School Board by wards, despite the overwhelming public sentiment that members should be elected using another system, either at-large or hybrid.

How ironic is it that a decision about education was made without it?

With the exception of remarks offered publicly at Tuesday’s meeting, this City Council has not made a single attempt to explain why a majority prefers a ward system.

Given the opportunity to speak, not all members of the council took advantage. Some offered a word salad reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s speech in Iowa last weekend . Others engaged in selective hearing, giving weight only to the voices with whom they already agreed. Anecdotes were abundant — many of which disagreed with the public speakers actually in the room.

Over the past several months, I’ve heard from people all over this city about what they wanted in an elected school board. Most who took the time to call or email me would never participate in a public hearing. Many had not realized just how unaccountable the City Council is — in that we never get the chance to vote for a majority of its members.

It was accountability that drove the successful effort to put elected school boards on the ballot, to make the City Council-appointed School Board — appointed, I might add, at-large and not by wards — answerable to the rest of us.

If the five-member majority voting for a ward system were truly accountable to voters, they would have taken the time to educate the public on why they supported a ward system. They could have talked to the folks at the public hearings. They could have taken to the pages of this paper and written op-eds. They could have posted to the city’s website .

Maybe then some of us would have changed our minds. For that matter, perhaps some of the council members would have changed their minds.

Instead, those five just took it away from us.

There were several references in Tuesday’s meeting to the 2021 redistricting.

At the state level, there is an effort under way — OneVirginia2021 — to change the way the districts are drawn for state and federal offices. Perhaps Norfolk needs its own version — Norfolk2021 — to change the way wards are drawn. Perhaps then we would be allowed to elect enough members of the council who recognize the value of civic engagement.

In the interim, we have council elections in 2016 and 2018. Let’s hope we get some candidates willing to educate and not just offer declarations from on high.