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March 17, 2012 Published in Letters/Opinions

An Appointed School Board?

To the Editor:

It has been 9 days since the release of an independent accountant’s report on the Alexandria City Public Schools Capital Improvement Program processes from July 1, 2010 through October 31, 2011.  We have read and heard many public expressions of outrage, calls for the resignations of school officials, and demands for holding ACPS and the elected school board accountable for what the report called “a dysfunctional environment in relation to CIP related activities.”

We have seen the school board close ranks around Superintendent Morton Sherman.  Presumably to show that everything’s under control and ACPS’ financial house is in order, the board “has asked the Superintendent for an independent compliance audit of financial controls within 45 days.”  The Deputy Superintendent for Support Operations, whose responsibilities include oversight of financial services and educational facilities, has resigned, as has the Chief Financial Officer and two facilities department employees.

As someone who has been closely involved with ACPS for the past 16 years as a parent, PTA officer, ACPS bus driver, school board member and private citizen, I am not surprised by these events.  I find them predictable and the result of Alexandrians’ general ambivalence to the election of school board members.  The voting data from the May 2009 school board elections shows how few registered voters even bothered to cast a vote to determine who would be responsible for budgeting and overseeing the spending of more than $200 million of locally generated funds.

Only 14,419 voters - 15.4% of Alexandria’s registered voters - cast ballots in the 2009 election.  Each voter had the opportunity to select 3 members to represent their interests on the school board.  If each voter had taken full advantage of this there would have been a total of 43,257 votes cast in the three school board races.  The election results show only 25,088 votes were cast for school board candidates.

If each person voting for school board candidates selected a slate of 3, then only 8,363 (9%) of registered voters would have voted for the school board citywide.  Since, “bullet voting” or “plunking” - selecting only your candidate - is becoming more common in Alexandria, the number of those casting votes for at least one school board candidate was likely greater.  However, it’s extremely unlikely that the number of voters registering a preference came close to the already abysmal 15.4% turnout.  This level of public engagement in the selection of our school board is embarrassing, particularly for a city with our demographics.

When I canvassed door to door during my 2006 and 2009 campaigns as a school board candidate, many people told me they didn’t follow the school board and public school issues since they didn’t have children or their children didn’t attend public school.  I acknowledged their rationale, but pointed out their taxes and home values were directly impacted by the actions of the school board.  I reminded them that a school board that does not effectively establish and monitor implementation of policies, or consider the needs of the entire city when developing its budget, does not serve the public’s interest.

Alexandrians are right to be disturbed - even outraged - with the current actions of the ACPS administration and the school board.  Significant changes are needed.  But neither “throw the bums out” nor “bring back the old days” is going to solve ACPS’ problems.  The situation facing Alexandria is a combination of institutional arrangements and human behavior.

If history is a guide, it is wishful thinking that Alexandria voting patterns will change in the near future.  A school board election process that facilitates the selection of members by such a small number of voters will likely continue to give us the same dysfunctional outcomes and sub-optimal results for our students and citizens.

We must hold ourselves accountable for the actions - or inactions - that have brought us here.  It’s time for us to admit we need a new school governance vehicle - not repairs, restorations, hood ornaments or new drivers - to move our public schools forward.

While not a panacea, I believe a return to an appointed school board would give the city a more professional governing body - a board that holds itself accountable to the entire city, not just those with children in the public schools or ACPS employees - a board that we can truly be proud of instead of making excuses for.

An adult conversation about how we determine who will serve as a member of the school board should begin now.  I hope Mayor Euille and Chairwoman Gorsuch will initiate that discussion at the next meeting of the City/Schools Committee, and that the Alexandria community will begin giving more attention to the board that directs over 30% of the City’s budget.

Scott Newsham
Former Member of the Alexandria City School Board

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