School Board seeks staggered elections

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Proposals for reducing board size, eliminating districts draw less support
BY AMY WILL

Nearly 30 years after its first election cycle, Alexandria City’s School Board is looking to shake things up for a more consistent future – one that includes a staggered election process and possibly fewer members at the table.

Board member Kelly Carmichael Booz said the reasoning behind a proposed transformation is turnover. She said she has seen too many superintendents, staff and fellow members depart over the years, and believes something
needs to change. “I want to make sure we are setting our school system, our students, our staff, our community up for success. And this current model does not set us up for success,” Booz said.

Under the existing structure, all nine board members are elected every three years in November and begin three-year terms on January 1. Three members are elected from three districts – A, B and C. Before the first election in 1994, Alexandria’s School Board was appointed by City Council. Since then, the School Board’s terms have aligned with that of council’s, moving from a May to a November election date in 2012.

Booz said the idea for staggering the election of board members is not new, and blames misinformation for the idea’s failure to gain traction. “The assumption had been that if the School Board wanted to stagger their terms,
they had to be staggered in tandem with council. So, whatever the election cycle is for the School Board would be the same election cycle for council,” Booz said.

Once they realized this was not the case, Booz said she and fellow School Board members began to advance a proposal for staggered terms.

“We had an initial conversation to get the pulse of the board in December of 2022 to see if there was an appetite for having this conversation and pursuing terms,” Booz stated.

School Board member Ashley Simpson-Baird also said she saw a need for change.

“There’s definitely a pattern when a new School Board is elected. It’s quite challenging to have the majority of the

School Board be new and need to make sometimes pretty high stakes decisions without having been in that position before; and so we all sort of see the benefit to continuity,” Simpson-Baird said. Simpson-Baird referenced data presented by the School Board back in February that showed an average of five of the nine School Board seats – which is 56% – have changed each election cycle since 1997.

“In the 28-year period since switching to an elected School Board, ACPS has seen six superintendents resign with interim superintendents filling time in between,” Simpson-Baird said.

The document presented also noted on average, ACPS superintendents have resigned nine months after a new School Board takes office, and that since 1994 four of five superintendents left their jobs when the School Board turned over at least five members.

At a previous meeting, board members reiterated the reasoning behind staggered terms with a spotlight on the benefits. A slide at the meeting stated:

“ … ensures retention of institutional knowledge as a continuing body by avoiding large-scale turnover, continuity of policy instead of frequent changes in focus, members have more time to gain experience before running for reelection, increased voter interest, members better able to serve public/constituents, improved relationship with the Superintendent.”

Booz and Simpson-Baird said the proposed plan not only focuses on staggered terms versus whole board elections, but that other changes are also being considered, such as:

• whether or not to increase term length from three to four years,

• whether to keep district representation or move to at-
large voting,

• whether to decrease the size of the board, and

• whether to align with state and federal election cycles. Since Dec. 13, 2022, the board has conducted various work sessions, public hearings and most recently, a survey taken by ACPS families. Booz said these resources helped to
shape a myriad of options, and that she and her fellow board members plan to winnow the best combination and take it to City Council.

“Some I like and some I don’t like, but we really wanted to be comprehensive because we didn’t want to get to the point of having a conversation about terms and somebody to say, ‘Well, why didn’t you consider this option?’” Booz said.

According to Booz, three models are being proposed. Each is slightly different, but most of the variations include two key points: a board with staggered versus whole board elections, and the retention of district voting rather than an all at-large election.

Data/ACPS

Most of the proposals also retain a nine-member board, though several would reduce the board’s size by two members, to seven.

With so many possibilities in the works, some parents, like Jennifer Rohrbach, said they fear a dramatic shift in structure could add to problems down the line.

“How is this good for the parents and the students and the citizens? What are the benefits? I really don’t see any,” Rohrbach said.

Rohrbach said her greatest concern would be the reduction of the board’s size, leaving two fewer voices to implement change and to respond to parent concerns.

“To cut down the number of School Board members, it doesn’t serve the residents, it doesn’t serve parents well or students because I just don’t
think that the representation will be there,” Rohrbach added.

Booz said a smaller board is not an option she favors, but she is “open to reducing the numbers if that’s the route that we want to go.”

Perhaps the most controversial issue on the table is the possibility of an all at-large board, a system that mirrors that of City Council. Although stated in the community survey as a viable option, both Booz and Simpson-Baird
said it is not one they would vote for.

“I personally really like the districts because I think it provides the representation across the city that we need,” Booz said. Simpson-Baird concurred.

“District A, B and C are each unique and distinct for their own reasons. And I think continuing to have representatives from each of those areas is important in reflecting the diversity of our city,” she said.

ACHS parent Marie Randall has been vocal in her support for staggered terms. She agreed drastic alterations can be daunting, but models that include a staggered election cycle or even a four-year term could be the key to seeing long-term change in the ACPS system.

“I think there’s something that we have been missing. I am very supportive of what they’re trying to do. Staggering is probably where my biggest support lies. But, the other ones … I don’t see any of those as negative.”

The proposal has created a pool of differing opinions, but all agreed that consistency is the overall goal. “It’s so hard when you’re so close to it. I can see now – being on this my second round on the school board – just how
significant the impact is on our school division in our district and that impact really does trickle down to our students, which is the core of what we do,” Booz stated.

The School Board is still awaiting results from the community survey and hopes to present a final proposal to City Council before summer.

From there, any changes to Alexandria’s School Board election process would need the state legislature to pass legislation and the governor to sign it into law.
-awill@alextimes.com

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