About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Staggering forward

About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Staggering forward
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Eaton

Since the 1960’s, the Alexandria School Board’s relationship to the electorate has been restructured about every 30 years.

In July 1964, the General Assembly approved an amendment to the city charter to enlarge the Board to nine members after the city’s African-American leaders asked City Council for an additional seat on the six-member board to promote minority representation. Council added three seats, thus creating a nine-member board.

In 1994, 30 years later, the first elected board took office. Now, nearly 30 years on,
it appears that the implementation of staggered terms of office, and a reduction in the number of board seats, are increasingly likely.

So far, public reaction to the board’s investigation of staggered terms has been muted. A single speaker testified in favor of staggered terms at the board’s April 20 public hearing and a board member told me that there have been a modest number of responses to a survey about a possible change to staggered terms.

Proposals for changing the way politics is conducted in Alexandria often interest only a select few: officeholders, potential officeholders and local affairs obsessives. Election processes can seem abstract and remote from immediate concerns. For example, how Board members are elected seems unconnected to the effectiveness of classroom instruction or student wellness or other ACPS essential concerns.

A City Councilor, reacting to the possibility of the board moving to staggered terms, asked “Why now?” indicating skepticism about board terms as a priority.

The possible change to staggered terms for board members, which requires action by both City Council and the Virginia General Assembly, has been discussed intermittently for several years. According to current board members, the topic was sidelined by the pandemic and the press of other business.

Adjusting election machinery can have consequences. For example, in 2009 city elections were moved from May to November – making them coincident with state and federal elections – which seems to have contributed to an era of all-Democrat councils

The arguments for staggered terms involve predicted advantages: staggered terms should reduce the loss of institutional knowledge – which happens when multiple board members leave at the same time – and reduce the time necessary to build working relation- ships among board members and staff. They would help continuity with capital projects and instructional initiatives. Another argument, which may be more of a hope, is that staggered terms would reduce superintendent turnover.

Opponents counter that staggered terms are less responsive to the voters because staggered terms make wholesale changes –“voting all the bums out”– more of a time-consuming process.

The staggered terms discussion includes consideration of a reduction of the size of the board. Mayor Justin Wilson told me that he favors staggered terms for the board and City Council. He sees reducing the size of the board as a significant priority because of the challenges of building consensus in or with a group of nine people.

The staggered terms discussion also involves whether to continue, completely or partially, the current system of three voting districts where board members run in defined areas of the city, but are responsible to the entire community.

Staggered terms, how to implement them, the size of the board and whether voting districts should be maintained or voting should be at large, collectively generate a mind-numbing number of options.

Those interested in the details can find out more in the materials prepared for the Board’s Feb. 23 work session on “School Board Election Cycle, Terms and Composition” which can be viewed at drive.google. com/file/d/1k5Jwa1I0tFAEytvOiECFRc5fTCPbzmwj/view?usp=share_link

According to the Clerk of the Board, a work session on staggered terms is scheduled for May 18 to discuss the survey results and the public reaction to the prospect of staggered terms and related topics. A board resolution is expected to be introduced and adopted in June.

Looking ahead, if staggered board terms are ad- opted can similar changes for City Council be far behind? Arlington County implemented staggered terms for its elected county and school system officeholders. It seems unlikely that Alexandria will maintain an “all-at-once” election cycle for council and implement staggered terms for the board unless maximizing voter confusion is somehow a goal.

When I retired from the School Board in 2006 after three three-year terms, it was difficult to get through the metaphorical exit: eight of nine board members left that year. Staggered terms would prevent a near-total turnover of that kind and, many hope, bring other benefits.

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006 and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.