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Measure Allowing Elected School Boards Passes in Virginia

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After more than a decade of trying, Virginia lawmakers have finally approved legislation giving state voters the right to elect school-beard members.

Under a bill that cleared the legislature last week and is expected to be signed by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, school-beard elections could be held as soon as 1994, ending Virginia's status as the only state in which all school-beard members are appointed by other local officials.

School-board-election measures have been introduced each year since the mid-1970's, only to die in committees or on the floor of one of the legislative chambers.

Support from lawmakers elected last fall made the difference this year, said Delegate David G. Brickley, a Democrat who has been the issue's most persistent champion. Elected school beards were an issue in many legislators' campaigns, he noted, and candidates favoring elections usually won.

"There has been a gradual realization by the members of the General Assembly that the people really wanted the right to be able to vote for school-beard members," he said. The key vote came in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, which easily killed the measure last year after it had been passed by the House. The chairman of the panel, Senator Joseph V. Gartlan Jr., who voted against Mr. Brickley's bill last year, changed his position and cast the deciding vote this year.

A long-time foe of elected boards, Mr. Gartlan survived a tough reelection campaign last fall in which many voters said they wanted the right to pick their board members.

Once the bill got through Mr. Gartlan's committee by an 8-to-7 vote, the full Senate passed it easily, 24 to 15.

Greater Involvement Seen

Under the legislation, at least 10 percent of a jurisdiction's registered voters must sign a petition to place a referendum authorizing schoolboard elections on the ballot. If the referendum passes, school-board elections would be held, at the earliest in November 1994.

Some legislators also wanted to give the elected beards taxing authority, but that would have required the more difficult process of amending the state constitution.

Supporters have argued that elected school boards will be more responsive and will give parents and other community members the chance for greater involvement in education.

"We let people vote on the lottery, we let them vote on panmutuel betting, but we haven't let them decide whether or not to elect school boards," said Mr. Brickley. "I feel very strongly people should have a voice."

The Virginia Congress of Parents and Teachers lobbied for the legislation for almost a decade. "In almost every survey I've seen, parental involvement has been the key to quality education," said Nancy Taylor, the group's president. "We'll have more parental involvement if we have the option to elect beards."

School-beard members in Virginia are currently appointed by county supervisors or city councils. Ms. Taylor and others have maintained that the behind-the-scenes lobbying for appointments should be replaced by the politics of the ballot box.

Not everyone, however, likes the new legislation. Some black leaders fear that minority school-beard representation will decline under an elective system. They point out that about 18 percent of Virginia's school-beard members are minorities, compared with a national average of 3.5 percent.

The Virginia School Boards Association also opposes the legislation.

Lawrence J. Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, believes elected school beards "will be a major setback for education" in the state.

"It's another bad reform idea that sounds good," he said. "Where school-beard members are appointed, you find very able people who are willing to take on the responsibility as a contribution to the larger community. Most will simply be unwilling to undergo the ordeal we call elections."

Mr. Sabato, a vocal critic of many aspects of the nation's current electoral process, also warned that competent board members could be replaced by representatives of special-interest groups that have the money to wage expensive election campaigns.

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