The U.S. Justice Department has given its approval to a new Virginia law that permits the election of local school boards.
The federal action this month cleared the way for the 40 or more of the state’s 136 local jurisdictions that are planning to hold referendums this fall on moving from an appointive to an elective system for choosing board members.
The department’s “preclearance’’ was required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which mandates that Southern states with a history of racial discrimination obtain federal approval before instituting any changes in election procedures.
Some critics of the Virginia law have warned that a shift to elections could lead to a reduction in minority representation on boards.
“We felt comfortable and confident that the enabling legislation did not violate the Voting Rights Act, otherwise we would not have precleared it,’' said Amy Casner, a spokeswoman for the department.
Further Scrutiny Required
Currently, Virginia is the only state where all school boards are appointed by local authorities. Under legislation passed this year, however, local jurisdictions can opt to institute an electoral system. (See Education Week, Feb. 26, 1992.)
“This has been a long, hard fight,’' said Del. David G. Brickley, a sponsor of the legislation.
In order to hold the referendums, petitions with signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in a jurisdiction had to have been submitted to circuit courts by early last month. Although each locality must still obtain federal authorization before the referendum can actually be placed on the ballot, Michael Brown, the secretary of the state board of elections, said the requirement was largely a formality.
If a jurisdiction passes its referendum, it must then obtain approval for its election plan from the Justice Department, also in accordance with Voting Rights Act requirements.
The local plans will face significant federal scrutiny, since the way the electoral systems are designed could have a major impact on the amount of minority representation on school boards.
Dividing a jurisdiction into single-member districts, for example, can have a favorable effect on minority representation if members of minority groups are heavily concentrated in one area, noted Mr. Brown. In contrast, selecting members on a at-large basis may sometimes have a discriminatory effect by reducing the collective impact of minority votes, he explained.
The earliest that new boards could be elected is 1994, he added. Elections would be held along with those for city councils or boards of supervisors.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1992 edition of Education Week as Federal Approval Clears Way for Elected Va. Boards