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U.S. Judge Backs Virginia's Ban on Elected School Boards

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A federal district judge has preserved Virginia's status as the only state to bar the election of local school boards, saying the Reconstruction-era law requiring appointed boards does not discriminate against blacks.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit on behalf of eight black citizens last October, say they will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In his Aug. 18 decision in the case, Irby v. Fitz-Hugh, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams of Richmond said the plaintiffs had "failed to demonstrate that racial considerations played a role" in the state's adoption of the system in 1870 or that it had been maintained "with a racially discriminatory intent and purpose."

Judge Williams acknowledged that delegates to a 1901-1902 state constitutional convention had upheld the system in part to "disenfranchise as many impoverished people, including most blacks, as [they] could.''

But, he added, the legislature's rejection of several proposals to allow elected boards in subsequent years was not "tainted by this racial animus."

In addition, the judge said, a new state constitution adopted in 1971 "worked to destroy the tools with which localities were able to racially discriminate through the public schools."

The decision drew praise from top state officials.

"Because of the outstanding efforts of the constitutional revision commission and the General Assembly," Attorney General Mary Sue Terry said in a statement, "Virginia's school-board selection system has been free of any taint or overtone or racial discrimination for the past 17 years. I am proud and gratified to see that achievement recognized by the district court."

No Adverse Effect

Under Virginia's system, all but one of the state's school boards have been appointed by county boards of supervisors, city councils, or selection committees created by local judges.

In 1947, the legislature granted Arlington County citizens the right to elect their board members. But it abolished that right in 1956 when the county school board opposed the state's efforts to resist school desegregation.

Judge Williams said the legislature's action was unconstitutional in that instance, but he noted that no Arlington plaintiffs were named in the Irby suit and that the legislature's action had not affected citizens in other counties.

"The plaintiffs have failed to prove that the appointive system has adversely affected black participation on either a statewide or local basis," he wrote.

To support his conclusion, Judge Williams cited data indicating that 18 percent of Virginia's school-board members are black, a figure proportional to the state's black electorate. State officials have noted that Virginia's percentage of black board members exceeds the averages for other Southern states and the nation.

Stifles Choice

Proponents of elected boards argue that the statewide average masks black underrepresentation on school boards in some parts of the state. In addition, they say, school-board appointments made by local councils and commissions dominated by whites may not reflect the choices of black voters.

"The judge left unaddressed our primary claim--which is not whether a black face is on the school board but who that face is," said Gerald T. Zerkin, an a.c.l.u. lawyer.

Neil Bradley, the lead a.c.l.u. lawyer in the case, added: "Clearly the original intent [of the law] was to exclude blacks from serving on school boards and from the process of selection."

In his ruling, Judge Williams noted that a 1984 report by a legislative subcommittee studying the school-board selection issue had listed several "legitimate, non-racial reasons" for maintaining appointed boards. Among them were ensuring continuity, avoiding "single issue" campaigns, and encouraging participation by qualified citizens who would not care to run for election.

"Most of these people would not be willing to go out and politick and lobby and do the things you have to do to be elected," said State Senator Elliot S. Schewel, a Lynchburg Democrat.

State Delegate David Brickley, a Prince William County Democrat, contended, however, that the ruling could increase the momentum for a bill to give localities the option of electing their boards.

Mr. Brickley, who has led the drive for several such measures in the last 13 years, said cosponsorship has increased steadily. He added that opinion polls consistently register strong public support for elected boards throughout the state.

"There is no question that the citizens of Virginia support elected school boards overwhelmingly," Mr. Brickley said. "We just have to make sure that their elected representatives are in tune with the desires of their constituents."

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