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Va. School-Board Law Evokes Deep Emotions

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In what has become an annual ritual, committees in the Virginia House and Senate have shelved bills that would have ended the state's curious distinction as the only one to bar the popular election of local school boards.

The tabling of the measures this month did not, however, put the matter to rest.

Possibly as early as mid-March, a federal district judge will decide the fate of the turn-of-the-century law barring school-board elections, which black Virginians claim continues to disenfranchise them.

But according to politicians and other observers on both sides of the issue, the debate over the law's continued existence is not confined to charges of racism. Opposition to change, they say, is also grounded4on the age-old fight over power, money, and influence, as well as a simple "fear of the unknown" should the state be required to totally reconfigure its system of local school governance.

Turn-of-the-Century Law

The contemporary debate has its roots in a 1901 state constitutional convention that resulted in the ap8proval of the school-board governance measure and others that both sides in the dispute agree were designed to perpetuate racial segregation.

With only one exception since then, local board members have been appointed by county boards of supervisors, city councils, or selection committees formed by local judges.

In 1947, lawmakers amended the law to permit voters in Arlington County, a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, to elect their school-board members. But the experiment was halted by the legislature nine years later when the locally-elected board announced its opposition to the state's policy of "massive resistance" to school desegregation.

Last October, black citizens, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in federal district court in Richmond seeking to have the law overturned. They allege that it has been maintained for discriminatory purposes, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1987.)

State officials dispute that claim, noting that the proportion of blacks appointed to school boards--now 18 percent--closely approximates the state's black population.

Negative Impact Predicted

"We're in real good shape nationally and in the South," said K. Marshall Cook, a senior assistant state attorney general. He cited data from the National School Boards Association showing that blacks represent 11.2 percent of all school-board members in the South, compared with 2.4 percent of all board members nationwide.

Other advocates of maintaining the current law argue that direct elections could actually reduce black representation on local boards.

"If one is interested in having a fair black representation, ... statistics indicate that the present system is better than the elected route," said State Senator Elliot S. Schewel, a Lynchburg Democrat. "It would be ironic," he added, if the lawsuit "ensures less black representation."

Others, such as Frank K. Wilson, chairman of the Arlington County school board, and State Senator Benjamin J. Lambert, a Richmond Democrat, say black representation under an elected system would vary widely depending on the locality's racial composition.

Chan Kendrick, head of the Virginia branch of the a.c.l.u., counters that such statistics are less relevant than the issue of "who makes the appointments."

In most jurisdictions, he said, board members are "appointed by a white majority" and may not reflect the choices of the black electorate.

He also alleged that the current system allows the state to bypass a Voting Rights Act provision that requires the U.S. Justice Department to review election procedures in most Southern states.

Mr. Kendrick also suggested that other reasons cited for maintaining appointed boards may be a smokescreen for lingering racial biases. "There are legitimate reasons that some people give, but race is the major reason why we don't have elected school boards," he said.

'Fear of the Unknown'

State Delegate David Brickley, a Democrat from Prince William County who has introduced several such bills to permit school-board elections over the last 13 years, says "fear of the unknown" is the primary explanation for the legislature's dogged resistance to changing the law.

Only two such bills--which would have given just three counties the option of having elected boards--have been approved by the House Privileges and Elections Committee since then, but none has gotten that far in the counterpart committee in the Senate.

"[It's] a fear of loss of control--of changing the hierarchy--of changing how things are done," Mr. Brickley said.

State Senator David Colgan, a Democrat of Prince William County who has introduced companion legislation in the Senate, said many legislators cite fiscal reasons for opposing the measures.

Because county boards and city councils, rather than school boards, have the authority to levy taxes and approve budgets, opponents maintain that elected school boards would find it hard to meet constituent demands.

Once an election option is approved, the bills' proponents counter, elected boards could seek an amendment to the state constitution to gain control over their fiscal affairs.

'Recipe for Disaster'

But many legislators are justifiably uneasy with that idea, said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor of government who is a noted authority on the state's political history.

"To fragment local budgets in that way would be a recipe for disaster,"said Mr. Sabato. Allowing separate bodies to control funding for various public functions, he said, would create a "patchwork of fiscal authority" with no central control.

Mr. Sabato also argued that the intense public scrutiny and fund-raising demands imposed by the electoral process would discourage many qualified school board candidates from running. He added that because voters typically do not take the time to learn candidates' views, those elected to local boards would be beholden to "special-interest" groups.

On the other hand, many citizens maintain that voters should have the opportunity to decide who will represent them, and that appointed officials "are not as responsive" to community needs as are elected officials, in Mr. Colgan's words.

"Anyone who doesn't think appointed school boards have political motivations has his head in the sand," said Mr. Brickley.

View From Both Sides

Elizabeth P. Campbell, who served two four-year terms on the Arlington County board during its brief elected stint in the 1940's and 1950's and was subsequently appointed to the board for another term, is in a unique position to make comparisons.

While appointed members generally have demonstrated interest in the schools, she said, "they have not had the overall approach that you get if you know you are going to run and be asked specific qestions about your schools."

"When you have gone to the people and you have told them your philosophy of education and worked hard to get their support, you try hard to do what you said you wanted to do," she added.

For appointed board members, Ms. Campbell said, the county board of supervisors is an extra "layer" that stands "between you and the people."

"To get what you think you need for your school, you have to persuade the taxing body that items you want are important," she noted.

The 85-year-old Ms. Campbell, whose husband, Edmund D. Cambell, a lawyer who represented parents in Norfolk who fought to keep city's schools open during the era of massive resistance, said she witnessed first hand the "statewide bitterness" over racial issues.

Although those issues formed the basis for the election ban, she said,the recognition that elected boards are likely to boost school budgets is the key to why repeal bills are rejected year after year.

"The real problem is money," said Ms. Campbell, who contends that representatives in rural parts of the state with traditionally low school budgets have been unwilling to support higher taxes for education ''frills," ranging from kindergartens to science equipment.

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