Va. Shore black leaders warn of diversity issues with elected school board

ACCOMACK Co., Va. (Delmarva Now) -- "An election can give you some strange results," said Eddie Boyd, a former school board member from Wicomico County, Maryland.

Boyd was among a panel of speakers at a public forum about school board selection methods, held Monday at Mary N. Smith Educational and Cultural Center in Accomac.

He and other minority panelists, including a current and a former member of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors, spoke about the advantage an appointed school board presents for blacks and other minorities, versus an elected school board.

The question is one voters will see on the ballot in Accomack County on Tuesday, Nov. 7. That's when a countywide referendum is being held on whether the method of selecting school board members should be changed from appointment by a selection commission — which itself is appointed by a local judge — to direct election by voters.

Boyd served on the Wicomico County School Board from 1995 to 2005, at a time when the board was appointed.

Around a year ago, voters in the county chose to change to an elected school board, in a referendum similar to what Accomack County voters will have Tuesday.

Boyd was a proponent of keeping the appointed school board, he said.

"It managed to provide some semblance of diversity," Boyd said.

The elected system in Wicomico County has not yet been acted upon, but will be in 2018, he said.

"We believe now we're in a situation where we probably will never have more than one African-American serving on the Wicomico County board," he said, citing demographics of the different districts — with only one of the districts being majority black.

Willie C. Randall, former chairman of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors and candidate for the House of Delegates, speaks on the merits of appointed school boards during a public forum in Accomac, Virginia on Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. Carol Vaughn video

Willie C. Randall and Oliver Bennett, respectively a former and current member of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors, both of whom are black, also spoke about the pros and cons of elected versus appointed school boards.

Northampton County seated its first elected school board in 2014, after a referendum in which 80 percent of voters opted for election over appointment by the Board of Supervisors to choose school board members.

Northampton voters returned only two of the previously appointed school board members to the body in the first election.

"There was a time when we vetted the different school board members and appointed them," said Bennett, who is a 46-year teacher in Northampton County Public Schools.

He has served as county supervisor during both periods — when school board members were appointed and now when they are elected.

"While the vast majority of the counties have taken these steps to elect the school board members, the results do not show an automatic change for the better," Bennett said.

Disadvantages of an elected school board include the cost of campaigning, which could discourage qualified people from running, he said.

"A lot of people are discouraged because they do not have the money, they do not have the support, to go out here and campaign," Bennett said.

Additionally, an appointed school board includes "serious vetting" by the group appointing school board members — in the case of Northampton, the board of supervisors, he said.

"When you vet them, you have a chance to ask them a whole lot of questions," Bennett said, adding, "... In the end, you get a chance to learn those people and know what they are about."

People may run for the office out of personal interest, rather than out of concern for students, he said.

"You don't need people to have an agenda; the agenda should be children," Bennett said.

Bennett said it has been difficult, at times, to find people willing to run for the school board in Northampton County.

"Right now, in Northampton County, in District 3, which is my district, we are begging. We finally got a young lady to run for the school board, and she's a write-in candidate," Bennett said, adding, "A lot of folks are not running. They are turned off."

Randall, former Northampton County Board of Supervisors chairman, also said the board's vetting process for appointed school board members was "very stringent."

"Those folks that we selected were people that really had the interests of the students at heart," he said.

Randall said two signature programs in Northampton County Public Schools — the Junior ROTC program and universal preschool — had either disappeared or been severely reduced since the county switched to an elected school board.

"It was awful to see that many young kids not having a program that they could participate in," he said of the ROTC program.

Randall also commented on the reduction in scope of Northampton's preschool program after the advent of the elected school board.

"As soon as we went to the elected school board, that program shrank. They lost one full class because of budgeting," he said.

"With an elected school board, it's not the best of the best, per se; it's the best liked. You don't have to be the best qualified. So that's something that Accomack's going to have to make that choice, what's best for them," Randall said.

Brenda Holden, spouse of Accomack County School Board Chairman Ronnie Holden, moderated the forum, which was held in the building that formerly served as the county's segregated high school.

The forum was sponsored by a concerned citizens group called "We the People," Holden said afterward.

Janet Turner, a former Accomack County School Board member who is in favor of an elected school board, was in the audience.

"We believe the voters of Accomack County are smart enough to choose their own school members. We also believe that if a school board member isn't doing a good job the voters can replace them," Turner said via email afterward.

Turner was appointed to the school board to fill the remainder of a term for a member who moved, but was not reappointed by the Accomack County School Board Selection Commission after she applied.

Accomack County is one of only a handful of localities in Virginia where the school board is not elected. Instead, the Virginia General Assembly appoints the Circuit Court judge, who appoints a school board selection commission, which appoints school board members in the county.

A group advocating for the change from an appointed to an elected school board gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition at Accomack County polling places on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016.

Turner said at the time that petitions with 4,676 signatures were turned in to Accomack County Clerk of the Circuit Court Sammy Cooper. Around 2,400 signatures were needed to get the question on the ballot as a referendum.

Also in the around two dozen in attendance Monday were Accomack County School Board members Margaret Miles and George Waldenmaier, along with schools administrators Rhonda Hall and Maribeth Haines.

Delmarva Now


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