School Board discusses restructuring options

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School Board discusses restructuring options
The Alexandria City School Board.
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

Alexandria School Board Chair Michelle Rief, Ph.D., prodded other members at the October 5 Board meeting to soon enact some version of restructuring reform that has been discussed for several years, rather than delaying action again. While limited consensus emerged around two proposed restructuring facets, no votes were taken at the meeting. 

“One of my goals is that we just make a decision about what we’re doing – not necessarily tonight … but what I don’t want to do is pass this off to another board,” Rief said. 

Concerns about the frequency of current every-three-year elections and recurring significant board turnover and a desire to retain institutional knowledge on the Board are the main stated reasons reform is being considered. 

Shortly after the two-hour public School Board meeting, members went into a closed session, then resumed publicly in a work session that lasted more than an hour, ending around 11 p.m. The work session focused on four facets of proposed restructuring: staggered terms, term length, size of the Board and whether to include an at-large representative. 

The issue of restructuring has been considered by three separate boards, all of which Rief has served on. Now, as chair, she pledged to move forward. 

With the help of Matt Smith, a policy services consultant, the Board broadly discussed board restructuring. Smith asked members to take turns saying whether or not they favored each proposed reform. At the end of each topic discussion, Smith requested each member to react to the proposal by giving either a thumbs up, down or neutral position. 

Term length was the first potential reform discussed. 

Almost all Board members expressed support for increasing to four-year terms. Members said longer terms would help newly elected members become acclimated to their new role, and be better for continuity and consistency for the ACPS community. 

“If we are doing this, it is to improve outcomes and situations for the students, staff and families we serve,” Board member Ashley Simpson Baird, Ph.D., said. “This is an easy call on my part.” 

The conversation then turned to staggering terms, meaning the elections of all Board members would not occur all at once. None of the members spoke against this potential change. 

Rief spoke first in favor and said when looking ahead to multi-year initiatives – such as collective bargaining and the High School Project – it’s best to minimize disruptions. 

“I think it really mitigates against the turnover, the loss of institutional knowledge and the disruption of operations,” Rief said. “I think it makes sense in the interest of supporting student achievement.” 

Members were split on whether to reduce the size of the School Board. The tension in the room was apparent, but former Board Chair Meagan Alderton spoke first. 

“No offense, I love you all, but there’s too many of us,” Alderton said. “In the sense of efficiency for the size of our school division … I’m not sure organizationally it makes sense [to have nine members].” 

Alderton also said in comparison to nearby districts with many more than Alexandria’s roughly 15,000 students – particularly Fairfax County with 181,000 students and Arlington, which has more than 26,000 students – it does not make sense to have so many Board members. 

Board Member Jacinta Greene spoke in favor of maintaining a nine member Board. 

“I don’t think we should compare our school division to anyone else. I think we need to focus on what works for us,” Greene said. “I think our inefficiencies are inefficiencies that we need to fix amongst ourselves.” 

Greene also said it was important to maintain nine Board members because it is difficult to elect people of color on a regular basis, and that the school district benefits from minority representation on the Board. 

In the post-discussion “straw poll,” four members were in favor of reducing the Board’s size, three were opposed and two were neutral. 

The final restructuring proposal discussed was whether to add an at-large member in the next cycle. 

Smith said if the Board was reduced in size – to either five or seven, as an example – there would have to be an at-large member included. Despite a back-and-forth discussion, no consensus emerged on this topic either. 

“I think people really like the fact that they are voting for School Board members that live in their district,” Greene said. “They’re kind of electing their own.” 

Board Vice Chair Kelly Carmichael Booz spoke against this idea, but said she is “moving toward” a hybrid model. 

“My biggest concern is … that [gives] an advantage to people who have the means to do the fundraising,” Booz said. “It could have a real impact on the diversity of the Board.” 

After the initial discussion, Smith walked the Board – minus Alderton, who inexplicably left before Smith continued – through a set of models, or scenarios, that could play out based on the current feelings of each member on the previously discussed topics. The Board kept three options at the end of the session, all of which increase terms to four years, maintain the nine-member structure and have staggered elections starting in 2027. 

The lengthy meeting ended when Willie F. Bailey, Sr., expressed fatigue, saying he was not sure he could continue the discussion because he was not registering the details Smith was presenting. The meeting was adjourned after his exit because there was no longer a quorum of in-person members. 

In order to move forward with restructuring of some kind, the School Board must approve a resolution at a future meeting. After that, City Council will host a public hearing to consider revising the city charter. The final step would be for the Virginia General Assembly to vote to make the change official in the state charter. 

 

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