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Suit Seeks To Void Va. Law Barring Elected Boards

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A long-standing Virginia law prohibiting elected school boards is under attack from the American Civil Liberties Union, which charges that it tends to discriminate against blacks and other minorities.

Lawyers for the aclu have asked a federal district court in Richmond to strike down an election law dating from the turn of the century that forbids the direct election of local board members. The law has long been opposed by civil-rights activists.

School-board members in the state currently are appointed in one of several ways, either by county boards of supervisors, city councils, or selection committees appointed by local judges.

Virginia is currently the only state that completely bans elected boards, although several states give local governments the option of appointing board members.

Black Voters' Rights

Civil-rights advocates say the Virginia law violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it denies blacks an opportunity to vote for their own representatives.

Under the act, Virginia is one of nine states--most of them Southern--whose election procedures must be reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department. Virginia's election ban, civil-rights lawyers contend, allows white officials to retain indirect control of the schools while avoiding federal intervention.

According to Chan Kendrick, the aclu's Virginia director, the election ban was one of a number of measures aimed at perpetuating racial segregation that were adopted by a 1902 state constitutional convention.

A special exemption that allowed voters in Arlington County, a Washington suburb, to elect board members was repealed by the legislature in 1956, Mr. Kendrick noted, after the Arlington board rejected the state's policy of "massive resistance" to school desegregation.

Opposition Weakening

Over the past decade, the Virginia legislature has rebuffed repeated attempts to remove the election ban. But that opposition has weakened in recent years, according to State Representative David Brickley, a Democrat who has sponsored several repeal bills.

Although the segregationist ideology of past years has faded in the state, many local officials continue to support the law because of their desire to keep control of taxing and spending decisions, Mr. Brickley exel10lplained. But that attitude is also changing, he added.

"We are starting to get some [support] from local governments, which is something we haven't had in the past," he said.

The aclu suit has been endorsed by both the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia Congress of Parents and Teachers. A spokesman for the state board of education declined last week to comment on the suit.

Although the Virginia School Boards Association has not taken a formal position on the issue, association leaders have a number of concerns about board elections, a spokesman said.

Because Virginia boards do not have independent power to levy taxes or approve their own budgets, elected members may find it difficult to meet constituent demands, said Jill Pope, the association's director of govermental relations.

"You could be setting up a shell game for the voters," she warned.

But election advocates argue that such worries are overstated. Elected boards, they contend, would be in a stronger position to argue for a state constitutional amendment that would allow them to control their fiscal affairs.

Advocates also downplay statistics cited by the school-boards association showing that blacks have gained about 18 percent of all board appointments, a figure that is roughly proportional to their share of the state's population.

"The discussion about numbers is completely irrelevent," countered Mr. Kendrick. "The fact is that you still have a process that is largely dominated by whites. No matter how many blacks they decide to appoint, it's not going to satisfy [the Voting Rights Act]. That's not how power is obtained."

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