No Perfect Way To Choose School Board Members

Published 2:53 pm Thursday, July 9, 2015

Should school boards be elected or appointed?

If a current citizen petition drive is successful, Prince Edward County voters will grapple with that question on the November ballot. The petition is nearing the required number of signatures to give voters the option of taking school board selection away from county supervisors and giving it to citizens.

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Buckingham and Cumberland will observe with interest, as each has had its own debates about school board selection in recent years.

Buckingham switched from appointed to elected in the 1990s – and, at the behest of a county supervisor, flirted a few years back with reverting. Cumberland dumped an antiquated selection commission in 2007 in favor of an elected school board.

Their experiences have proved that no system is perfect. Least perfect was the old Cumberland system, which still exists in state law as an option for localities. A handful across Virginia still use it. A selection commission appointed by an unelected circuit judge picks school board members, who have no accountability, direct or indirect, to taxpayers. Cumberland was wise to dump it.

That leaves the options of appointed and elected.

The latter is gaining favor in Prince Edward County, where the quality of public education lags behind what a progressive university town like Farmville should expect, which is no less than excellence. Any time a ranking of Virginia school divisions is released, Prince Edward should be toward the top, not toward the bottom.

An elected school board that would be directly accountable to voters is a tempting systemic change for a school division that needs to make major progress quickly.

Communities that have made the change, however, can attest that electing school board members is no magic pill for what ails public education. Among the challenges:

• Few qualified people are willing to spend money and campaign for such a thankless job.

• Elections draw candidates with axes to grind on pet issues, such as evolution vs. creationism, and against school administrators. (Momma believes the principal mistreated Little Johnny, so she’ll just run for the school board, by God, and fire them all.)

• Elected school boards without taxing authority – as is the case under Virginia law – inevitably wind up in political tugs of war with the taxing entity, the board of supervisors. A public blame game in which the combatants jockey for favor in the next election cycle rarely serves the public interest.

I hope the petitioners for an elected school board are successful. The question is legitimate, and voters deserve a say. If it makes it to the ballot, my vote would likely be no. But I welcome the healthy debate.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Farmville Herald. His e-mail address is