No perfect way

Published 9:12 am Saturday, September 12, 2009

Should school boards be elected or appointed?

As some communities grapple with that question, Phillip Bradshaw, the Isle of Wight County supervisor who’s never timid about challenging conventional wisdom, has raised a more radical question: Does a locality need a school board at all?

The Virginia Constitution seems to say unequivocally yes, but Bradshaw believes his county could petition the General Assembly for an amendment that might eventually allow an exception.

Under Bradshaw’s scenario, the superintendent of education would run the schools and report to the Board of Supervisors, much like the county administrator does now with other facets of local government.

Bradshaw sees it as a solution to the open warfare that has erupted in recent months between Isle of Wight’s elected school board and its elected Board of Supervisors. Citizens have complained to supervisors about the school board’s being unresponsive to taxpayers. A citizens group invited each school board member and Superintendent Michael McPherson to a recent public forum exploring what’s wrong and what’s right with public education in the county, and only school board member Herb DeGroft showed up.

Isle of Wight County has tried both appointed and elected school boards, switching to the latter in 2003 because of perceived problems with the former. The recent power struggle and citizen dissatisfaction are reminders that neither system is perfect.

The notion of elected school boards is gaining favor in Southampton County, where the current system has resulted in what might as well be lifetime appointments to the school board, and in Franklin, where the appointment system is badly broken and has undermined citizens’ trust in their elected leaders.

The City Council took an honorable stab this summer at finding consensus school board appointees who would end a pattern of acrimonious 4-3 votes by the City Council in recent years. After weeks of indecision and the extraordinary step of reopening nominations after the initial deadline, the ultimate vote on at-large appointee Edna King was, alas, 4-3.

Along the way, the council’s deliberations were shrouded in secrecy, causing deep suspicion among the citizenry — especially supporters of snubbed original nominees like David Benton, Peggy Scott and Phyllis Crum — of council members’ motives. The debacle had even Benton, a supposed victim of open interviews of school board nominees earlier this year, calling for more transparency in the process.

“I strongly encourage others in our community to stop using these innocents as political pawns in the current deal-brokering that we read has been going on behind closed doors,” Benton wrote in a guest column in July. “Children deserve better treatment than this from those of us pledged to their care. Fellow members of the Franklin community, please remember these are the same elected officials who were recently swept into office on a pledge of open government and fair dealings for all.”

A letter writer whom I admire and respect, taking issue with our newspaper’s editorial support of open school board interviews, suggested on this page recently that citizens should trust their elected officials.


Here’s another thought: Elected officials should trust the citizens — to observe, to participate in and to give input on critically important decisions like who will lead our public schools.

For all of its flaws, an elected school board guarantees citizens those rights and all but eliminates questions of fairness in the system. It’s why many in Franklin and Southampton County are tempted to make the switch.

I still prefer appointed school boards because:

* I’m not at all certain that qualified people would run for such a thankless job.

* I worry that elections would draw candidates with axes to grind against school administrators or other ulterior motives.

I understand completely, however, the sentiment that Franklin and Southampton can’t do any worse and therefore should give elected school boards a try.