Our View: Our school board is not broken, so what are we fixing?

Our View: Our school board is not broken, so what are we fixing?
The Alexandria City School Board.

When change is proposed to a governing body’s composition or manner of election, important questions need to be asked.

What would be gained and, conversely, lost by this change? Most importantly, does the proposed change make that governing body more responsive to the people it represents, or less?

As with the Hippocratic Oath, the guiding principle in making changes to elected bodies should be, “First, do no harm.”

(Graphic/Lyvian Sieg)

We raise this topic because in a work session last month, Alexandria City Public Schools staff led a discussion on potential changes to the Alexandria School Board’s composition and election cycles. During discussions, the majority of board members said they were in favor of reducing its size, increasing its election cycle from three years to four and staggering members’ terms.

The primary reason given for these changes is that they would increase the board’s efficiency. Board meetings would theoretically be shorter with fewer members. A four-year election cycle would result in less campaigning. Staggered terms would ensure more institutional memory and issue continuity.

The number of members per school board in Virginia’s 11 largest cities. (Graphic/Lyvian Sieg)

Those are all reasonable propositions and deserve careful consideration. But would the proposed changes make the school board more representative or less?

Alexandria’s school board already operates under a ward system, in which citizens of different parts of the city vote for people from their neighborhoods to represent them. This gives residents of each part of the city guaranteed representation on the board. We think this is good governance and that Alexandria’s city council should also adopt a ward system.

Unfortunately, we think each of the changes proposed at the work session would make Alexandria’s school board less responsive to the citizenry, not more.

First, decreasing the number of board members from nine to seven – or fewer – would definitely make the board less representative. Residents of each district would only have two board members dedicated to representing them rather than three.

The term length of school board members in the state’s 11 largest cities. (Graphic Lyvian Sieg)

Three members per ward provides opportunity for more diversity of ethnicity, perspective and experience among the representatives than two members would. While that’s not currently the case in District B, where three white women have served multiple terms, it’s true in Districts A and C.

Likewise, having board members answer to the public 33 percent less often, which is what adding another year to the election cycle would do – for either school board or city council – would definitely diminish the public’s chance for input.

Finally, while staggered terms would increase continuity on the board, they would also make impossible the jolt of fresh air that the five new school board members that were elected last fall brought to that body.

Those five members arrived in January with a clear mandate from the public to have a full hearing on whether a second high school was needed in Alexandria. And the five voted as a block to force that conversation.

That discussion was a fine example of representative democracy. Why would we want to eliminate it?

The number of members per school board in Virginia’s six largest cities. (Graphic/Lyvian Sieg)

The November work session was an initial look into what should be a protracted community conversation, and we will certainly also revisit this topic on these pages.

One final observation concerns the data presented at the work session, which examined Alexandria in the context of other school boards state-wide. We think a more apt comparison is between other large Virginia cities.

Alexandria is the sixth largest city in Virginia, according to 2010 census data. Of the 11 cities in the state with 75,000 or more residents, a majority have school boards of nine or more members, according to data provided by the Virginia School Boards Association.

Of the six largest cities in Virginia, only two have school boards of fewer than nine members. In other words, statewide data that indicates a majority of localities have smaller school boards is misleading. Alexandria is comparable to the cities of Lynchburg, Portsmouth, Richmond and Chesapeake, not Rappahannock or Bath counties.

This is a topic worthy of extensive discussion. It should ultimately be decided by a citywide referendum.