School board may reduce size

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Alexandria is among the 7 percent of school boards in the Commonwealth of Virginia with nine members. Nearly half of the school boards in the state have five members, and about a third have seven members. (Graphic/Lyvian Sieg)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

The Alexandria City School Board is considering decreasing the number of members on the board and increasing the length of the terms they serve.

A majority of school board members said they were in favor of these changes at a school board work session on Nov. 14. However, any potential changes are still in the early stages, and board members are considering several variations of composition and election cycles.

The elected board is currently composed of nine members, three from each of the city’s three voting districts, who serve three-year terms. Board members select their chair and vice chair annually.

The Nov. 14 discussion was prompted by a resolution that the previous school board adopted in June 2018 to explore school board election cycle and composition adjustments. That board left the resolution intentionally generic so that the newly elected school board could work on specifics, according to Jennifer Abbruzzese, director of policy and board initiatives at Alexandria City Public Schools.

“[The resolution] simply requested that the incoming board and council look at this and discuss it during 2018-2019,” Abbruzzese said. “But it does request that the school board, which was elected Nov. 11, 2018, develop and present specific recommendations to council on the matter.”

City council will need to initiate any changes the board recommends, since the changes would involve a city charter amendment that would eventually need approval from the Virginia General Assembly.

The school board is considering changes in three areas: the length of school board terms, the number of members on the board and the structure of election cycles.

Any changes to election cycles, such as extending terms or switching from concurrent to staggered terms, would apply to both the school board and city council, according to Abbruzzese. However, modifications to the school board’s size would not impact council.

While discussing potential changes at the meeting, seven of the eight board members present expressed support for changing at least one of the three areas. Chris Suarez was absent, and Michelle Rief said she was opposed to any changes to the board’s composition or election cycles.

The majority of school boards in the Commonwealth of Virginia
serve four-year terms. Alexandria is among the 10 percent of school boards that serve three-year terms. (Graphic/Lyvian Sieg)

Potential changes that board members discussed included increasing the term length from three to four years, decreasing the number of board members and implementing staggered terms. No one spoke in favor of increasing the number of members on the board or decreasing term length.

Benefits of extending terms from three years to four years that Abbruzzese outlined in her presentation include retention of institutional knowledge and cohesion on the board.

“If you look at our recent history, in the election of 2012, seven out of nine new board members were elected. In 2015, five out of nine, [and in] 2018, five out of nine, so there’s significant turnover on this board every three years. It has an effect,” Abbruzzese said.

The overwhelming majority of school boards in the Commonwealth of Virginia – about 89 percent – serve four-year terms, according to Abbruzzese. Alexandria is among the 10 percent of school boards that serve three-year terms.

Freshman board member Jacinta Greene pointed out that three-year terms can seem shorter than they are because of campaigning.

“I really like the idea of a four-year term, being that in a three-year term if you’re running again, that whole last year you’re thinking about the election or working on the election, so you technically only have two years of really doing work before you have to get back into that election and running for office mode,” Greene said.

(Read more: School board approves one connected high school)

Fellow first-term board members Meagan Alderton and Heather Thornton, along with veteran board member and vice chair Veronica Nolan, joined Greene in expressing support for four-year terms.

All four veteran board members – Nolan, Ramee Gentry, Margaret Lorber and Chair Cindy Anderson – said they wanted a smaller school board.

Several cited statewide data in their explanations. Alexandria is again an outlier with a nine-member board. Nearly half of the school boards in Virginia have five members, and about a third have seven members, according to Abbruzzese. Alexandria is among the 7 percent of school boards with nine members.

That being said, Alexandria is in the middle compared to surrounding jurisdictions. Arlington County has a five-member board, Fairfax county has a 12-member board and the City of Falls Church has a seven-member board.

The number of members on Alexandria’s school board compared to the number of members who serve on school boards in three surrounding jurisdictions. (Graphic/Lyvian Sieg)

Beyond data, some board members pointed to efficiency as a motivating factor for decreasing the size of the board.

“I think there’s a way we can still achieve a board that represents our city, that is listening to different constituent voices, that is a thoughtful, deliberative body, but can potentially be much more efficient and cost effective,” Gentry said.

Rief pointed out several potential drawbacks of a smaller board.

“I think that reducing the board would reduce … the diversity of views we would have on the board,” Rief said. “It would reduce the amount of experience that people bring to the board, which is what really I think gives strong oversight in our process by having that experience. I think it would reduce community engagement because there would be fewer board members who would [be] going out into the community and engaging with folks. And I also don’t think it guarantees that meetings will be shorter.”

Several board members said they wanted to maintain districts in order to maintain diversity of opinion. One possibility for altering composition involves a seven-member board with two members per district and one “at-large” member.

The third factor the school board discussed was the form of election cycles. By the existing concurrent system, all school board seats are up for election at the same time every three years. If the board were to switch to a staggered election, the cycle would be spaced out, with certain seats up for election in different years.

Again, the majority of school boards in the state, about two-thirds, have staggered election cycles, putting Alexandria in the minority, according to Abbruzzese.

“You have 10-year capital budgets, you have long-term projects like the high school project, votes on high profile issues, superintendent hiring. If you have a board that is staggered, then you have more continuity through all of these major decisions made by the board,” Abbruzzese said.

Gentry, Nolan and Thornton said they supported a switch to staggered elections.

The work session was a first step in the discussion. At the end of the meeting, Anderson suggested scheduling another work session to talk through possibilities before the school board composition and election cycles become a meeting topic and the board potentially drafts a recommendation for city council.

If any recommended changes reach city council and council chooses to initiate a city charter amendment, changes likely won’t be implemented until the next school board and city council election in 2021.

Gentry and Nolan said any changes they help implement would be a strong legacy for this board.

“This could be a huge legacy of this board to reduce the size of this board, and I think this could be a real gift that we give to the students of this school division,” Nolan said.

Rief questioned why the board needs to make any changes at all.

“We really have a lot of things on our plate right now and I’m just trying to understand what problem we’re trying to solve,” Rief said. “I don’t really think some of these changes would honestly be that substantive. … I don’t even support taking any of this on at this time.”

(Read more: School board adopts FY2020 budget)

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