Mayor Fraim and Members of Council:
With the referendum for elected school board passed, we write to request that the city council implement at-large elections for school board members as quickly as possible.
State code dictates that we should do so. According to Section § 22.1-57.3(B), “The initial elected board shall consist of the same number of members as the appointed school board it replaces, and the members shall be elected from the established county or municipal election districts, at large, or a combination thereof, on the same basis as the school board previously was appointed.” (Emphasis added.)
Clearly this indicates that the first elected school board in Norfolk’s history must be a seven member body elected at-large.
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We believe an at-large selection process is the best approach for many reasons.
The students of Norfolk Public Schools deserve the most effective citizen governance. Arbitrary geo-political lines, drawn to achieve objectives beyond our school system, can limit the potential field of qualified candidates.
The school zones within our public school system are fluid: students are not limited in their access to our education system by their place of residence. In a system the size of Norfolk Public Schools, this flexibility and fluidity will only increase with time. The selection process for governance should also maximize access to participate.
Policy decisions should be made for a city-wide system and should not be subjected to fractured interests: every school board member’s charge is to oversee and establish policies that ensure the opportunity for academic excellence to every student regardless of where the student may live. That same goal should be reflected in the governing body and election process that creates the board.
It may be argued that the current ward system should be duplicated in the creation of elected school board districts; however, the ward system was a remedy for Voting Rights Act violations, and we are of the position that that same remedy is not necessary to pass muster under that Act today. Our position is based on a number of reasons.
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The demographics of Norfolk have changed since the Collins decision was handed down in the mid-1980s. Today less than 50% of Norfolk’s residents are white. In fact 51% are non-white. At the time of the Collins decision, 60.8% of Norfolk’s residents were white and 35.2% were black.
At-large elections are not de facto violations of the Voting Rights Act. Several cases may be cited when the courts have allowed at-large school board elections under a voting rights challenge. (United States v. Euclid City School District Board of Education, OH, Levy v. Lexington Co., SC, Valdespino v. Alamo Heights Independent School District)
The Department of Justice has allowed changes to Norfolk’s ward system. Voters in our city were granted the ability to elect the mayor at-large in the years since the Collins decision and to modify precincts. These are clear indications that Norfolk’s violations of the Voting Rights Act are being remedied, and we are evolving as a proudly diverse community.
Although the Department of Justice may have given their blessing to the ward system currently in place, a ward system is not the only governance structure that can withstand scrutiny. To consider a ward system form of governance solely defies the spirit of the recent referendum whereby the vast majority of voters sought a change in the system of leadership selection.
Regardless of whether the election of a school board in our city requires Department of Justice review due to the Collins decision, legislative action is required to achieve the voters’ objective of an elected school board in our city. Such was the case when citizens sought the direct election of mayor. Legislation was passed by the General Assembly in 2005, review and approval then took place at the Department of Justice, and the first direct election for mayor occurred in May 2006.
The 2015 Virginia General Assembly session is approaching quickly. Virginia State Code § 22.1-57.3 provides guidelines for the transition from an appointed to an elected board. Norfolk’s existing appointment schedule (2015 and 2017) and election cycle for city council (2016 and 2018) dovetail, creating a logical transition schedule such that three members of Norfolk’s school board should be elected in May 2016 and four members should be elected in May 2018.
Since Norfolk’s school board composition is directed in Virginia Code §22.1-51, rather than Norfolk’s charter, changes must be addressed in the next legislative session in order for the first school board elections to be held in compliance with Virginia Code § 22.1-57.3 on May 3, 2016.
We ask respectfully that the following amendment be made to Virginia Code § 22.1-51.
§ 22.1-51. Election and terms in City of Norfolk.
Notwithstanding the provisions of the charter of the City of Norfolk, the school board of the City of Norfolk shall consist of seven members to be elected from the city at large. Members shall serve for terms of four years beginning on July 1 of the year each is elected and shall be staggered so that the terms of three members begin in 2016 and the terms of four members begin in 2018, with subsequent elections held to achieve four year terms for each member elected. Any vacancy occurring on the school board other than by expiration of term shall be filled by appointment by the city council for the unexpired term.
The mandate from Norfolk voters is undeniable. Eighty-three percent of those who voted in the election held November 4, 2014 supported the referendum for an elected school board to govern Norfolk Public Schools. Every effort should be made to enact the voters’ command for a greater role in the governance of our city school system with all due haste. We respectfully request that the City of Norfolk endorse the change in Virginia Code § 22.1-51 as suggested above.
Thank you for your attention to this important issue and for your continued service to our city.