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Franklin talks transition to elected school board

FRANKLIN

Should Franklin voters wish to transition from an appointed school board to an elected one, the general election in November 2021 is the earliest a referendum could be held on the matter.

At the request of newly-elected Councilman Ray Smith, Franklin’s City Council discussed this option and two others — both of which involve petitioning Virginia’s General Assembly for a change to the city’s charter — at its Aug. 10 meeting. Smith had brought the matter up at a previous meeting, citing the lack of nominations Council received at recent public hearings to fill vacant School Board seats.

“I certainly wouldn’t say that the school board we have and the School Board we’ve had in the past — it’s certainly no indictment on the work that they’ve done,” said Mayor Frank Rabil. “We’re having a hard time finding people … that’s the bottom line.”

“If we do an elected school board, with that system you have someone who’s running with stake in the game … that’s interested in the school system,” said Councilman Linwood Johnson. “It would alleviate … City Council trying to beat their heads against the wall to find someone … and the people, the candidates, would be accountable to the citizens, more accountable to the citizens than to City Council.”

Currently, the Ward 3 and Ward 6 seats on the city’s school board are vacant. The former has been so since July 1 when Andrea Hall-Leonard, who had served the maximum number of consecutive terms allowed per the City Code, stepped down. The latter has been vacant since early June when Jessica Grant-Banks abruptly resigned during a school board work session.

Following a public hearing the night of the meeting to solicit Ward 6 candidates, the Council now has one: Jerry McCreary. During a previous public hearing on July 13, no one came forward in person or in writing to express interest in the Ward 6 position, and only two candidates — Jamaal Brian Whitehurst and Tanya L. Smith — expressed interest in the Ward 3 seat.

Whitehurst re-submitted his name during last month’s hearing after previously expressing interest in the position during the city’s first public hearing on the matter in June. Whitehurst’s initial nomination never went before the Council for a full vote, as Councilman Greg McLemore’s motion on June 22 to appoint him to the position received no second.

The Council had been scheduled to vote on Whitehurst’s and Smith’s nominations during its July 27 meeting but instead voted to table the matter. While not listed on the Aug. 10 agenda, Councilman Greg McLemore made passing mention of the matter in his remarks on transitioning the city to an elected School Board.

“There was a gentleman who came … still under consideration for my ward that may have, wouldn’t have had to be in this situation if it was an elected school board,” McLemore said. “I think it’s an advantage to the citizens who really have a passion to serve on the School Board — takes it out of our hands as far as us judging that individual.”

According to the city’s attorneys, Franklin has three options for transitioning to an elected school board: the referendum, the charter change, or a combination of the two. The latter would involve petitioning the General Assembly for the change with the results of the referendum to support its case.

“The General Assembly may want you to say yes we did poll our citizenry, and this is how they feel about it,” said City Manager Amanda Jarratt.

An official referendum, according to state law, is initiated by voters, not Council members, when at least 10% of the city’s registered voters petition the Circuit Court of Southampton County. This must be done at least 111 days prior to a general election, which means putting the matter on the ballot for this November’s election is out of the question.

If not done in time for Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial election, the next earliest opportunity would be the city’s May 2022 City Council election. Hearing this, McLemore asked what would happen in the event the city sees the same lack of candidates during a School Board election that it’s been seeing at its public hearings.

“Will we have to let that ward go unrepresented for another two years, four years, because we have to wait for an election?” he asked.

A charter change, rather than a referendum, might allow the Council more leeway in specifying a process where it could still appoint someone in the event no candidates run for office, Johnson and Rabil both suggested. But to go that route, the city would need to begin discussing the matter with its state representatives as soon as possible so that the matter could be included in a bill that comes before the House of Delegates or state Senate during the 2021 General Assembly session.

“I’ve asked a couple school board members, if you had to run, would you run?” Rabil said. “I’ve gotten two different responses.”