'Resounding' victory: Does elected school board knock Dems?

Charlottesville's appointed school board went the way of the Dodo bird on election day, November 8, as 73 percent of city voters opted to shift from an appointed to an elected school board. In passing the referendum, were voters sending Dems a stinging message about city politics in general?

Absolutely, says Jeffrey Rossman, a UVA professor and Democrat who crossed party lines to join Republican City Councilor Rob Schilling in pushing the referendum.

"To me this is the last nail in the coffin of traditional southern Democratic Party paternalism here in Charlottesville," says Rossman. "It's about time that we left that tradition behind and moved in the direction of greater accountability and greater transparency."

Like Rossman, Schilling is "ecstatic" that voters backed the referendum so strongly.

"It was resounding," he says, "in every precinct across the city."

Appointed school boards, he says, have a "sordid and shameful history," dating back to the early part of the 20th century when Virginia's General Assembly made electing school boards illegal as a way to prevent blacks from serving. In fact, says Schilling, it wasn't until after a group of African Americans filed suit in 1989 that the General Assembly repealed the law. After school board elections became legal in 1992, 78 percent of Virginia's school systems switched from appointments to elections.

Charlottesville is now in that majority.

The message Schilling says he "heard repeated over and over" from voters: "We don't need a small group of elite people to tell us what to do."

But Democratic city councilor Blake Caravati calls the idea that voters were using the referendum to criticize Charlottesville government "bunk."

"If you believe that, then wait 'til May," he says, when voters will vote to fill two city council seats– Caravati's and Schilling's– and two school board seats. And for further proof that Dems retain a lock on the city, "Look what happened Tuesday," Caravati adds, when Dems swept the city ticket.

Caravati says he remains concerned about the possible loss of diversity on the school board now that candidates must mount potentially pricey and time-consuming campaigns, and he regrets that there was never a forum for publicly debating the issue.

"Some people who were promoting it didn't want to hear anything about concerns," he says. "They were more into calling names: paternalism and stuff like that."

City councilor Kevin Lynch, also a Democrat, expressed his concerns about electing the school board in the months leading up to the election.

"I've been ambivalent," he says now, adding that he always believed the success of the referendum was a "foregone conclusion."

"If you put a referendum on the ballot that says, 'Should voters be able to elect just about anybody?'" he explains, "there are very few people who will say no to a personal choice."

School board chair Julie Gronlund says she believes in years to come the Charlottesville school board will "look different."

In addition to fewer minorities, Gronlund says the board members may be older. "I think that many parents with young children don't have the time to run a campaign," she says, adding that her opinion is based on her experience in other school systems.

Rossman disputes that assertion, and says he's already heard from several parents who are interested in running for the board.

Both Rossman and Schilling maintain that fears of losing racial diversity are unfounded. Part of the referendum's success, Schilling says, was the endorsement by the local chapter of the NAACP.

"I think it was very helpful that the NAACP was comfortable with assuming responsibility for finding candidates and assisting them in running," he says.

That endorsement, however, did not put all concerns to rest– and it should not be seen as an endorsement by the entire African American community, says Caravati, adding that only "five people on the executive committee" of the NAACP voted for it.

NAACP chair Rick Turner did not respond to the Hook's request for comment.

Indeed, opinion on elected vs. appointed boards is not unanimous in the African American community. Current Charlottesville School Board member Muriel Wiggins says she believes the Board will "end up being an all-white board within a few years because we have not had an active African American community that puts forth members."

As for the local NAACP chapter's endorsement, she points to the Alexandria chapter of the NAACP, which, citing a need to maintain diversity, endorsed an appointed board for that city in 1993.

But although Wiggins believes an appointed board is preferable, she agrees with Schilling and Rossman that Charlottesville's appointment process had problems.

"They were more political than they were practical," says Wiggins of city councilors. "There are people who have applied [for the school board] who I couldn't believe weren't considered."

Wiggins says some people did believe "being in political favor" with the Dem-heavy city council was a prerequisite to appointment to the school board.

But Lynch denies that assertion.

"I think there's a myth out there that the city council makes it hard to get appointed to the school board," he says. "You had to care about all the kids, care deeply about fixing the achievement gap, had to be a consensus builder, and had to be competent.

"Not every candidate that we interviewed met that test," he adds, "but a lot of them did. Now we have the additional requirement that you be a good campaigner and be willing to get into the political process."

Despite the apparent acrimony, all the parties agree on one thing: with the referendum passed, it's time to find the most qualified candidates for the election in May. And time, says Caravati, is of the essence.

"We have to find people to run, and we have to do it right now," he says. "They have to be on board by the first week in March– not a long time in our world."


Republican Rob Schilling and Democrat Jeffrey Rossman were the force behind the elected school board referendum, which passed by a wide margin.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO