Forum Mulls Possible Tweaking of School Board Election Protocol


(Tuesday, September 18, 2007 7:04 AM EDT)

Would moving School Board elections to the spring help take some of the party politics out of them?

That was one of the suggestions that came out of a recent Committee of 100 meeting on the topic of Arlington's School Board, which converted from appointed members to elected ones starting in 1993.

Under state law, county and city school board elections are designed to be nonpartisan. But political parties get around that restriction by “endorsing” candidates, rather than formally nominating them.

In Arlington, being endorsed for election by the Arlington County Democratic Committee gives a candidate a big leg up on the competition.

That was the case for Cecelia Espenoza, who twice ran for School Board as an independent, only to be defeated in successive elections by Democrat-endorsed candidates Ed Fendley and Sally Baird.

“Do we really want [political] branding for School Board members?” Espenoza asked during the Committee of 100 forum, held Sept. 12 at Marymount University. “Or, do we want to choose?”

The General Assembly in the early 1990s allowed localities the option of electing their school boards; the practice had been permitted, briefly, in the 1950s but was rescinded by the legislature during Virginia's “massive resistance” to court-mandated integration.

One reason Arlington residents approved the referendum for an elected board 14 years ago was because “School Board members were beholden to the County Board,” said speaker Marjorie Hobart, who served for 28 years as executive director of the Arlington Education Association.

“I felt that standing for an election would enhance [the School Board's] authority,” she said.

School boards across Virginia still lack independent taxing authority, which panelists said they would be unlikely to get anytime soon. In Arlington, the County Board in large part determines the School Board's final budget amount through the transfer of tax dollars, but does not have the power to micromanage the budget.

To help lessen the intensity of party politics surrounding school board elections, Margaret Lampe, who was a Democratic County Board appointee to the School Board in 1995, suggested separating School Board elections from the elections in November.

That way, Lampe said, School Board races would not get lost in the shuffle of bigger campaigns.

“My suggestion, if there should be a change, is not to go back to appointments, but we might change the dates for [election of] School Board members to the spring,” she said. “If the elections are in March, the Sun Gazette would only write about the School Board candidates!”

But just how effective the change would be was questionable for some people at the meeting.

“It's going to be a political process, whether it's partisan or not,” Hobart said. “It is people vying for the power to make a decision.”

This year, the choice for Arlington voters will be easy: Democrat endorsee Abby Raphael is the lone School Board candidate on the ballot. She will succeed School Board Chairman Dave Foster, who is departing after two terms as Arlington's lone non-Democrat in elected office.

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