Opinion – Less democracy is never a good choice

Published 8:11 am Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Apparently frustrated with the fruits of the democratic process, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors recently had County Administrator Doug Stanley look into how they could convert back to a system of appointing citizens to the Prince Edward County School Board rather allowing the public elect them.

While our school system obviously has much room for improvement, choosing less democracy as a solution to the problem is not a good choice. Particularly since three of the eight members of the School Board were originally appointed by the Board of Supervisors in the first place.

The crazy thing about this road the Board of Supervisors is examining, is Prince Edward County just recently went from the supervisors appointing the school board to the board being elected by the citizens. The first school board election was held in November of 2017 after an overwhelming 76% of the Prince Edward County electorate said they wanted to elect their own  school board members. That referendum was held less than five years ago.

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While the supervisors complains not enough candidates run for school board, and that many qualified people don’t want to go through the hassle of running for office may be true, that’s the American system.

The same argument the Board of Supervisors is making to appoint the School Board could be made against them. The county hasn’t had any significant economic development announcements in more than 800 days, millions of dollars of capital improvement projects have been placed on hold and the supervisors hold the purse strings for a school system where rainfall literally falls in classrooms. Surely, we would have better leadership if we let our state delegates, the governor, or three guys in a local coffee shop appoint our county supervisors.

The roots of the democratic process have not had time to take hold with this board. Three of the eight current members can trace the roots of their time on the school board to an appointment from the Board of Supervisors. One member was appointed by the School Board. So, half of the current School Board members were hand-picked at some point.

Dr. Lawrence Varner was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 1995. Dr. Timothy Corbett was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 2014. Dr. James C. Dumminger was appointed to fill an open seat by the School Board itself in 2019 before winning an election in 2019. Dr. Peter Gur was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 2014.

To see why the people of Prince Edward County likely grew frustrated with the Board of Supervisors and the appointive process, let’s take a look at the story behind the appointment of Gur who was chosen to be on the School Board only after the death of a member of the Board of Supervisors.

In June of 2014, the Board of Supervisors were deadlocked 4-4 on a decision between two candidates for a vacant seat for the Farmville district seat. The candidates were Gur, an adjunct professor at Southside Virginia Community College with an extensive teaching background in the county school system, and Linda Leatherwood, a retired teacher who had served on the board for 12 years. With the eight supervisors deadlocked 4-4 and no provision in the county bylaws to break to tie, the decision could have been decided by a coin flip, but the board thought that would be a poor way to make such an important decision.

The board put the decision off until the July meeting. On the day of the regular July board meeting, Prospect representative Howard “Pete” Campbell, one of the four members who supported Leatherwood, died. The board held a vote that very night approving Gur 4-3.

Is that how we want our democracy to work?

To fix this school system, it’s going to take all of us. We need to set goals and objectives as a community. We need to track and celebrate progress little by little.

The business community is going to have to get involved. The civic clubs such as the Lions and Rotary are going to have to take bigger roles and find ways to support our students and teachers on a regular basis. We need our great community resources in Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College to partner with the school system, develop joint programs and show our children a brighter future.

Churches are going to need to ask how they can help and provide tutoring and space for extended learning after hours or begin preschools to get our children on the path to success at an early age.

Parents need to ask questions about our schools, run for the School Board and stay up to date on how their children are progressing.

It’s going to take our entire democracy, our entire community to lift this school system to where it needs to be.

Putting all the weight on the back of eight supervisors didn’t work before, it definitely would not work now.