Archives - Lloyd Snook Comments on Elected School Boards
September 2005
Letters to the Editor: Lloyd Snook Comments on Elected School Boards
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I had planned on being at the "elected School Board" debate on Saturday, but the State Democratic Central Committee is meeting that morning, and I cannot be in two places at once. I would like to set forth my concerns about this issue.

The "elected vs. appointed" debate is an interesting study in political theory vs. political reality.

There are five main political values being bandied about in this debate:

1. Democracy is good. Electing School Board members is regarded as more "democratic," and therefore supposedly better, than appointing School Board members. But why elect School Board members and not, say, the Planning Commission? Or the Social Development Commission? Or the Historic Landmarks Commission? Where do we draw the line to say, "Oh, come on -- that's too trivial to bother to elect them?" There is no principled way to say that we'll elect City Councilors but not School Board members, or to elect School Board members but not Planning Commission members or Social Development Commission members, or just about anyone else -- as happens to this day in some small towns in New England. There is nothing morally wrong with electing lots of minor officials, just as there is nothing morally wrong with appointing them. The only theoretical basis that is offered in this debate is that the School Board is the only board or commission of the City government that has statutory authority to hire and fire, to spend money (and lots of it), and to run an entire branch of the government with only minimal interference from the City Council. All of those things are true, but none of them translates into a reason why they should be elected rather than appointed. And doesn't this lead also to a countervailing value:

2. We are a representative democracy. We elect people whose judgment we trust to make decisions based on information that we don't have time to accumulate ourselves. We as private citizens don't have time to interview School Board applicants, or Planning Commission applicants, or Historic Landmark Commission applicants, which is what our City Councilors do. We should give the power to people who have the access to information to do it better than we do.

3. Give control to those whom you expect to hold accountable. I have a philosophical difficulty with the notion of electing a School Board, and holding them accountable for the conduct of the schools, but not giving them authority to decide how much money to spend. As Brian Wheeler, County School Board member, has pointed out, they have the responsibility to spend the money, but not to raise it. They are at the mercy of the governing body's budget. At least in the system of appointed School Boards, we can hold the City Council accountable for both whom they appoint and how much money they allocate to the schools. The buck stops at the desk of City Council. With an elected School Board, the School Board members may say to the voters, "I had all these great ideas, but it's Council's fault -- they didn't give us enough money." An elected School Board system gives the elected School Board great accountability, but only partial control -- a potential problem.

4. We should set up a system that encourages decision-makers to have the whole city's interests at heart. As a general proposition, we expect elected officials to represent the people who elect them, and not to represent people who do not elect them. This leads to pork barrel politics, to NIMBY politics. One reason why we adopted the present system of having all fifth and sixth graders go to Walker and all seventh and eighth graders go to Buford was to reduce the feeling that kids on the south side of town were getting an inferior education as compared to the kids from the north side. NIMBY politics in the schools is bad. Everyone on the School Board should have the interests of all of the City at heart. But ...

5. We should set up a system that allows voters to know and to be able to complain to their decision-makers. This thought argues in favor of School Board members representing smaller areas -- wards -- rather than the whole City. They should have to go door-to-door to get elected, so that the people whom they represent would know them and be able to call them on the phone to complain. So having School Board members represent smaller areas would seem to be better than having them represent the City as a whole. As a theoretical matter, this is hard to argue with, until you realize that the theory has little applicability to the debate over elected School Boards. As it is now, 4 of our School Board members are appointed from the wards, though I would have a hard time telling who they are. In fact, in my experience, each of the 7 School Board members has always acted as though they represented the entire city. Certainly, folks from across the City were not shy at fussing at School Board members irrespective of where the Board members lived. This doesn't seem to be a problem at the moment, and it doesn't seem to be a real argument in favor of electing School Board members from wards.

Jeff Rossman's argument for elected school boards is based, fundamentally, on his perception that because the recent School Board had problems, it must be the fault of how those members are chosen. (Has he never had an elected representative who made him say, "How did we get this guy?") He makes three arguments, ultimately:

1. That elected school boards are "likely to be more responsive to the concerns of the community."
2. That elected school boards are likely "to operate more transparently," and
3. That elected school boards are likely "to enact policies and programs that have support in the community."

Jeff doesn't say how any of these things are to be accomplished; they seem to be articles of faith.

It is a democratic (and Democratic) tenet of faith that elected bodies are "likely to be more responsive to the concerns of the community." In fact, though, there is no way to either prove or disprove this statement. It all depends on who we are electing or appointing. Would Jeff seriously maintain that the U.S. Congress -- which we have elected -- is a "responsive" body? Or that appointed members of various other boards and commissions in Charlottesville are NOT responsive to the concerns of the community? Is there any real reason to believe that requiring candidates to wage a political campaign will produce a better crop of Board members?

Likewise his contention that elected school boards will "operate more transparently." How does this follow? I know that he is concerned about a lack of transparency in the School Board decision-making process; there have been allegations that the School Board in the last year violated the Open Meetings Act. The way to prevent violations of the Open Meetings Act is for the members of the group to listen to their attorneys, not for the populace to elect their members. Anyone who follows such things around the state knows that elected School Boards, and elected Councils and Boards of Supervisors, violate the Open Meetings Act also. The corrupt governments of Tammany Hall were elected. It is a matter of faith that elected officials are more "open" than appointed officials, but there is no inherent reason why it should be so.

And finally, we are told that elected school boards will "enact policies and programs that have support in the community." Again, this is a democratic article of faith, but it does not necessarily follow.

A recent WVIR story on elected school boards interviewed a number of parents who were quoted as being in favor of elected school boards, saying, "Yes -- I think parents should have more say in the running of the schools." That's a proposition that is almost impossible to argue with, except to point out that electing school board members won't advance that cause one bit. Most of the people who will be voting in the election to choose School Board members won't be parents of kids in the schools.

I hope it is apparent that for every theoretical argument in favor of elected School Boards, there is another theoretical argument that cuts the other way. So let's look at the practical aspects of the problem.

Electing a School Board will require a fundamentally different view of City politics.

1. As a practical matter, you would not be able to have an elected School Board with wards, or with a mixture of wards and at-large seats, without also changing City Council to the same system. As I have argued before, I have both theoretical and practical problems with that idea, which I will not rehash here. But everyone needs to realize that a vote for elected School Boards is also a vote for a ward system of electing City Councilors.

2. If we were to elect Councilors or School Board members by ward, we would set up the wards under the supervision of the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. It is highly likely that the Justice Department would require that we adopt a ward configuration that included a "majority minority" district -- one that is at least 60% African-American. After the 1980 Census (the last time the issue was studied in detail), we concluded that we would be able to come close with four Councilors elected from wards, but we couldn't quite get there. I believe that demographic trends since then have made it MORE difficult to draw a majority minority district with four wards; I think you'd have to go to 6 wards, at least. For City Council, too.

3. We would presumably have some -- maybe 1? maybe 3? -- at-large members as well. I read a study some years ago that suggested that boards and councils with ward members functioned in a more unified, more "let's think of the interests of the whole community" fashion when they have more at-large members -- which stands to reason. So we may end up with 9 Councilors and 9 School Board members.

4. That means that we have to find, nominate, fund, and elect between 19 and 23 public officials -- 5 Constitutional officers, 7 or 9 City Councilors, 7 or 9 School Board members. And the ward members would be nominated, funded and elected from a ward of only about 6,800 people. That sounds like plenty of people from whom to find candidates, until you actually start to do it.

5. Many people who are willing to be appointed to a School Board -- and who would be excellent public servants -- would not submit to an election.

6. When I think of elected School Boards, I think of situations like that in Kansas, where elected School Boards have mandated teaching creationism. Or some county in Pennsylvania (I don't remember where) that had elected a School Board that decided that the schools should teach "intelligent design" creationism; the ACLU was able to tie things up in court until the next School Board election. Ah, but folks say, "It couldn't happen here in Charlottesville", to which I can only say, "Let us not be over-confident."

7. One thing that is certain -- we would virtually certainly NOT elect a School Board that had 3 or 4 African-Americans, as we have had for many years. The reality is that our student body is about 50% African-American, and the City Council has for years felt that it was a good thing to have a School Board that understood the students for whom it was making decisions.

Jeff Rossman has argued in e-mails to you recently that he thinks that minorities would do well with an elected school board, and that it would be possible to have a school board elected with wards but a City Council still elected at large. His arguments have three problems: he has asked the wrong question, he has taken statistics out of context to bolster a conclusion that he has already reached, and he has offered analysis about the Charlottesville political process without much actual knowledge of how things have worked here for the last 25 to 30 years.

At the outset, we need to acknowledge an awkward part of this debate. City Council in recent years has chosen -- deliberately -- to select a School Board that reflects the racial makeup of the body of students in the school system (about 45% African-American) rather than the racial makeup of the City as a whole (about 20% African-American). For the last 10 years or so, the School Board has averaged about 4 Caucasians and 3 African-Americans.

Before analyzing the problem further, we need to talk openly about this decision. Is it good or bad to have a School Board that reflects the racial make-up of the student body rather than of the electorate? Is preserving this distribution a good thing, a bad thing, or not a factor in the decision-making process?

Let's look at a couple of truisms of political behavior with which I suspect no one would seriously disagree:

1. Candidates from the majority ethnic group in a particular district will be more likely to win in that district.
2. If you draw district lines so as to maximize the number of minority voters in one district, you necessarily reduce their voting strength and their political influence in other districts.
3. Voters who value diversity on an elected body are more likely to vote for diversity if they have more than one vote to cast. Put less abstractly, if a Caucasian voter places some value on having an African-American on City Council, he or she is more likely to vote for two Caucasians and one African-American on a slate of three competing for three seats than for an African-American who is the only candidate competing for one seat.
4. Tokenism is alive and well in 21st Century Charlottesville -- many well-meaning people see the importance of having one African-American on City Council, but will not feel the same sense of importance in voting for a second African-American on Council.

There is a fifth conclusion that I think is perhaps less obvious, but nonetheless valid -- it is more likely that a diverse group of candidates would win if there is some entity (a political party, perhaps) that feels an obligation to nominate, support and elect a diverse slate than if people nominate themselves by getting 125 people to sign a petition, they run without the support of a political party (as is law in Virginia), and voters may only be able to vote for one person.

Maurice Cox and Kendra Hamilton were extremely attractive and qualified candidates; they had no trouble either getting nominated or getting elected. Since 1980, the Democratic Party has nominated, and elected, an African-American every four years as a part of the three-candidate ticket. But when have we ever even nominated a second African-American candidate? When the Republicans have nominated an African-American (think Kenneth Jackson, or Edward Brooks in the 1990's), that person has lost big. When Democrats have had the opportunity to nominate a second African-American, they have declined to do so.

With this in mind, why do I say that Jeff has asked the wrong question?

The question that he asks is, in essence, "Nationwide, do minority candidates stand a better chance of getting elected in a ward system than in an at-large system?" This is an interesting question, but not really applicable to our situation. Asking the wrong question, he gets an answer that is not particularly helpful. It is true, in the aggregate, that minorities -- meaning African-Americans, in Charlottesville -- fare better under a ward system than under an at large system. That is true, in the aggregate, because the performance of most localities before the Voting Rights Act was passed was so awfully discriminatory. The Voting Rights Act, and the regulations enacted under it, had been based on the experience that at-large representation resulted in very few African-Americans getting elected. Pushing state and local governments toward ward systems and single-member districts, combined with aggressive actions from the Justice Department to force redrawing of district boundaries every ten years, dramatically increased the number of African-Americans elected. However, there is no statistical support for the notion that having wards will cause minority candidates to be elected in numbers that exceed the proportion of the minority in the community as a whole -- which is what Jeff is trying to argue when he says that African-American membership on the School Board would not decline.

So if Jeff's question is the wrong question to ask, what is the right question?

Now we come back to the awkward part of this analysis. If your initial value judgment is that having an African-American presence on the School Board that reflects the students who attend Charlottesville schools is an outcome that needs to be preserved, the real question here should be: "Is there any way to structure electing School Board members so that there is a reasonable likelihood that African-American representation on the School Board would approach the 40% mark in Charlottesville?" Given the truisms of political behavior and the real world experience in Charlottesville over the past 25 years, the answer should be obvious -- there is NO way to structure an elected school board that will reliably produce African-American representation of 40% or more. So yes, it is true that nationally, minorities have fared better under wards than under at-large systems, but if the experience under the at-large system was that the minorities were already being represented proportionally -- as is the case in Charlottesville -- having electing members from wards may actually DECREASE minority represntation.

On the other hand, if your initial value judgment is that there is no particular virtue to having an African-American presence that reflects the student population, but that there is some value in having an African-American presence on the School Board, then the question becomes: "What scheme of selection will result in a reasonable likelihood of some African-American membership on the School Board?" The answer to that question is, basically, that pretty much ANY scheme of selection should accomplish this end. We can be reasonably certain that appointed School Boards will have African-American membership; that has been the case for more than 30 years, and it seems to be accepted wisdom on both sides of the political spectrum. In an elected School Board context, it becomes a little harder to ensure, but certainly the strong likelihood is that there would always be at least one member of the School Board who is African-American. For one thing, we would presumably have a ward-based elected School Board, and we would probably be required by the Justice Department to try to create a majority-minority district. That ward would almost certainly end up looking like a Gerry-mandered spider in the middle of the City, but it could be done. One consequence, however, is that it is highly likely that African-American influence in every other ward would be low. That does not mean that an African-American could not be elected from a majority Caucasian ward -- just that it becomes less likely. You may see that as good, or bad, or meaningless, but to insist that African-American membership on an elected School Board would not drop is to ignore reality.

Finally, Jeff has also argued that having a ward-based elected School Board would not require a change to a ward-based City Council. Theoretically, he is right; you could select the two differently, but the political reality in Charlottesville is that it would be extremely difficult to draw and maintain that distinction. My concerns about the NIMBY attitude, which I think are serious concerns at the City Council level, are equally significant at the School Board level. This would be particularly true if one member of the School Board were seen to be the Venable representative, and one the Burnley-Moran representative, and so on. Jeff's suggestion that School Board wards could be drawn to coincide with elementary school districts ignores the effects of redistricting, the Voting Rights Act, and other legalities -- plus it raises NIMBY to a whole new level. And when you consider that the City Council districts would almost surely be the same lines, NIMBY goes wild. My other big problem with having ward-based election of City Council members is that it would require redistricting every ten years, which is a complication that we have been lucky enough to avoid. If you are going to have to redistrict every ten years for the School Board, that objection at the City Council level becomes meaningless. So, yes -- one can theoretically maintain a ward system for schools and an at-large system for City Council. But abstract theory usually yields to political reality, and it would here. Make no mistake -- if we go to an elected School Board, it will have to be at least a mixed ward/at large system, and political pressure will require the same system for City Council.

This is not a moral matter for me -- it is a practical one. If I thought that electing a School Board would assure better decisions, or a better education for our children, my view would be very much different. But I am afraid that what we would actually get would be a greatly elevated level of political activity, with much more speechifying and grandstanding, with no discernible improvement in the quality of education that our children receive. If we elect School Board members, I expect that we will end up with School Board candidates raising and spending thousands of dollars each to get themselves elected, but I doubt very seriously that the electorate will be any better informed when making their choices than the City Councilors who make the selections now.

Lloyd Snook (electronic mail, September 12, 2005)

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