In just a few days, City Council will make a decision about the School Board’s future that is every bit as momentous as the referendum itself. On January 27, Council is scheduled to decide how the School Board is going to be elected – at large, by ward (like the Council itself), or through a “hybrid” system that combines elements of both systems. Sound like an unimportant detail? Think again.
The outcome of this decision will determine whether you may vote for all seven School Board members, or only for those who represent your ward. It will determine whether the schools are to be administered by a body whose foremost interest is the district’s well-being as a whole, or rather by members whose primary allegiance is to their individual neighborhoods. It will determine whether the ward politics that define City Council will also define our newly elected School Board.
In short, the decision that will take place at the Council meeting this Tuesday is a very big deal. All the more so, since four of eight Council members announced at the end of their last work session that their inclination is to support the School Board’s election by ward – despite a clear majority of citizens who spoke out against this at two public hearings (you can watch them here and here). The citizens who advocated for an at large or hybrid system of election live in neighborhoods throughout the city. They included a former School Board member, as well as representatives from Norfolk GAINS, Norfolk Citizens for an Elected School Board, the Norfolk Federation of Civic Leagues, the Norfolk Federation of Teachers, and the NAACP. That’s an impressive and inclusive group of people who don’t want the School Board elected by ward.
At the opening of the Council’s December 16 work session, Mayor Fraim expressed his hope for an election system “that would give us the best opportunity for diversity.” I wholeheartedly agree, but the current ward system won’t achieve this. As outlined by Vivian Paige in a recent Virginian-Pilot editorial, the ward system was introduced a generation ago “as the result of a lawsuit, Collins v. City of Norfolk, that successfully argued that black representation on the City Council was not proportional to the population. At the time, the city’s voting age population was approximately 65 percent white and 35 percent black; the City Council had one black member.” The system was designed so that three of seven wards would be comprised of mostly blacks, and these three wards have since been represented by black Council members. The ward system was a compromise solution that succeeded in giving a greater political voice to underrepresented members of the Norfolk community.
The first elections by ward occurred in 1992. So what’s happened since then? More than two decades later, the voting age population looks quite different – it is now approximately 50.5 percent white, 40.9 percent black, and 8.6 percent other minorities. The student population of Norfolk Public Schools is even more diverse – 60.98 percent black, 22.38 percent white, and 16.64 percent other minorities. If Council members are serious about promoting racial diversity within our schools’ leadership, I don’t see how a ward system that now underrepresents blacks and other minorities in our city today is the best way to achieve this.
So what about geographic diversity? At the December 16 work session, Mayor Fraim recalled a time before the ward system when one could stand on the Hampton Boulevard bridge and see the rooftops of five Council members’ homes (including his own). As the Mayor points out, this kind of political concentration isn’t healthy for a city of Norfolk’s size, with its rich diversity of neighborhoods. Wards prevent such lopsided representation from occurring again, but there’s a cost: worthy candidates are shut out because of political boundaries, and Council members who do get elected are rewarded for what Vivian Paige calls “divisive thinking”: “Rather than considering what is best for the city as a whole, what is best for the ward is a priority.”
The cost of the ward system will be especially steep with respect to our city’s schools. Wards don’t correspond to school attendance zones. And given the growing number of NPS “choice” schools and specialty programs that draw from all parts of the city, there’s an ever larger population of students who live in one ward and attend school in another.
Theresa Whibley is the only member of Norfolk City Council who has also served on School Board. At the January 13 work session, she emphasized that a successful school board works as a group, not as a section of town: “This school system will not thrive until we have seven people that are the best this city can produce, that are interested in our school system, not our neighborhoods, not getting votes from a certain high school.” As a parent with students in the system, I couldn’t agree more. I want to vote for the seven candidates I believe are most capable, regardless of whether they live on the east or west side of town.
Citizens of Norfolk will soon have a direct voice in electing our schools’ leaders. We must elect those who will best serve all Norfolk students; only then will our struggling school division become the solid cornerstone of a proudly diverse community. Please take the time to let City Council know that you oppose the election of School Board through the current ward system.
Paul D. Fraim, Mayor firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew A. Protogyrou, Ward 1 email@example.com
Theresa W. Whibley, Ward 2 firstname.lastname@example.org
Mamie Johnson, Ward 3 email@example.com
Paul R. Riddick, Ward 4 firstname.lastname@example.org
Thomas R. Smigiel, Jr., Ward 5 email@example.com
Barclay Winn, Super Ward 6 firstname.lastname@example.org
Angelia Williams, Vice Mayor/Super Ward 7 email@example.com