Elect county school board

Published 9:37 am Saturday, June 4, 2011

Election season is almost upon us.

Campaigns are beginning in earnest, and newly announced candidates seem to be falling from the sky. Soon to follow will be television ads, radio ads and, hopefully, lots and lots of newspaper ads.

This year, the voters of Virginia will elect an entire General Assembly, with its 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 40 in the state Senate up for grabs.

At home in Southampton County, the electorate will have even more work to do. In addition to choosing a new Board of Supervisors (or the old board of supervisors), we will elect a new sheriff, commonwealth’s attorney, commissioner of revenue and treasurer.

Localities within the county will be choosing town clerks, councils and mayors. There will be ballot initiatives and maybe even a constitutional amendment or two. For the political junkie, it will be like a trip to the candy store with a $20 bill and an empty stomach.

For fans of a democratic society, there will be something on the ballot to please just about everybody — except those of us who would like to have an elected school board.

In Southampton County, our school board is chosen for us, and that places us among a fairly select group. Of the 134 school districts in Virginia, Southampton County is one of only 24 whose school board is appointed, not elected.

In most cases where the board is appointed — 21 to be precise — the localities’ elected governing bodies — boards of supervisors or city councils — make the selections.

Which leaves three school districts in all of Virginia, Southampton County included, where the school board is appointed by another board of appointees, in our case a three-member panel of county residents who are appointed by a circuit court judge. The circuit court judge, by the way, is also an appointed position.

So what’s my point? Well to be sure, it is not to say that the selection panel has done a poor job of making its appointments to the school board. There are many members of the school board who have given years of dedicated service to the county school system and the education of our children.

And it is certainly not to suggest that the judges who made the appointments to the selection committee have done a poor job. As far as I can tell, the selection committee has sincerely made the best attempt at selecting qualified board members.

My point is that there is no accountability to the taxpayer in this process. In the next fiscal year, more than $10 million of taxpayer money, representing nearly 20 percent of the county’s total budget, will be spent on county schools, and the taxpayers will have no real voice on how it is spent.

Of course, we have the right to attend school board meetings and voice our opinion. But if the appointed school board chooses not to act upon our wishes, we have no recourse available to us.

We can’t vote the school board out of office. We can’t vote the selection committee out of office. And we can’t vote the circuit court judge out of office. So where does that leave us?

We can petition the Board of Supervisors, but its members merely decide how much county money is allocated to the schools. Again, no accountability to the taxpayers in how the money set aside for schools is spent.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone on the school board is holding a position they shouldn’t be in. And I’m not implying that the board is doing a poor job in choosing how to spend taxpayer dollars.

I’m simply suggesting that the taxpayers should have a voice in how the school board spends that money, along with the other $15 million or so in state and federal funding in the roughly $25 million county school budget.

We would never stand for an appointed Board of Supervisors that had no accountability to taxpayers at the polls. We should have a school board that is accountable to voters as well.

TONY CLARK is the general manager and advertising director at The Tidewater News. He can be reached at tony.clark@tidewaternews.com.