Tuesday, August 08, 2006

School board study: only wards can guarantee diversity

Under the old system, Council has appointed more blacks but those blacks have not come from historically African-American parts of town. The 2 blacks elected in May live on the north side.

Charlottesville, Va.-- Following the first direct election of school board members on May 2 and referendum mandate of November 8, the city’s school board election study task force of 8 appointed members recommended 2 options as to the system to be adopted for electing the 7-member school board.

Continue the appointment tradition of 4 wards and 3 at-large seats. The 4 & 3 model beat out the 7-neighborhood model, which held third place in public supporters and was aligned more with the schools. The 4-3 scenario is the conservative position: to seek historical continuity and a more gradual changing of the system, according to task force chairman Lloyd Snook. This system guarantees diversity-- at least in where the members live.

Or continue the current system in the form of "resident districts" where everybody votes for everybody and the majority selects all candidates. There could be 4 wards, or 2 to simplify redrawing of the boundaries with every census. The citywide majority would elect members for their neighborhoods and for yours.

That majority comprises the Recreation and [Walker] precincts, the most populated and affluent of the 8 precincts. Tonsler is the smallest. While resident districts also guarantee geographic diversity, political diversity is guaranteed to be excluded. The residents district paradigm is de facto at-large and more conservative because the change is no change. [corrected. originally said Carver instead of Walker.]

Councilor Kevin Lynch pointed out newly elected Dave Norris as an example of how this would work. Norris lives in poor “downtrodden” Belmont (annexed 1938) and is the first Belmont resident to get elected in 30 years. Lynch concluded that you can have geographic diversity in an at-large system.

Yes. But not political diversity. Because of low voter turnout, 1 in [6] registered voters have actually voted for the current councilors. Moving elections to November next year for the first time is another reform intended to improve participation. [corrected. mistakenly said 1 in 8.]

The task force has met 12 times and held 3 public hearings where 20 people spoke out, said chairman Snook. Input was solicited by email and by survey.

The study found no correlation between school performance and the system of electing school board members. Many officials contacted in other localities didn’t even know how their school board was selected.

During the course of the study, Snook said he read James Madison’s Federalist #10, which talks about balancing majority rule with minority rights. The great compromise was Congress, a mixed ward/at-large model.

Snook acknowledged there is a distinct north/south divide in Charlottesville. Residents on the south side of town have a longstanding feeling of being “on the short end of the stick.”

Historically almost all candidates have come from the north side, said Snook. Under the old school board, the majority party appointed from the south side because of the ward system.

Snook pointed out that under the old system, Council has appointed more blacks but those blacks have not come from historically African-American parts of town. The 2 blacks elected in May live on the north side.

The next school board election is November ’07 and candidates’ filing deadline would be June, increasing the time to campaign from 2 to 5 months. A ward campaign would save time and money compared to having to canvass the entire city.

Snook recalled the Daily Progress editorial advocating a do-nothing solution. Snook said, if council does nothing, this report would be the second study on election reform to be ignored.

Lynch said he was concerned about the idea we should do something simply under pressure to react in some way. He’s less concerned about geographical diversity than racial, socioeconomic and professional diversity. In his view it’s more a problem of candidate recruitment by the political parties.

Following Lynch’s disparaging comments about Belmont, Snook said political participation is a luxury item. A single working mom has little time to attend meetings and campaign. Another idea the task force discussed was increasing school board member pay.

Mayor David Brown interjected at this point and wrapped up the discussion. He said geographic diversity does matter and Norris joins 4 other council members from the north side. He’s concerned wards will create safe seats and be less competitive.

Council did not take a vote or endorse the report. Kendra Hamilton was absent.

Then followed Parks and Recreation Director Mike Svetz’s report on the state and future of city facilities, pools and parks. Because the facilities are 40 to 50 years old and ending their useful lives, Svetz estimates $11.5 to $12.5 million in necessary capital improvements.

In order to move forward in the planning, Svetz wants council to articulate a facilities development philosophy: whether to abandon current resources and build one giant fitness facility, or refurbish existing parks. Council didn’t really give an answer.

Only Carver Rec at Jefferson School and Washington Pool on Preston Ave. generate in admission more than 50% of their operating expenses.

If city parks were a private company, they would be forced to adopt the mega health fitness club model such as Atlantic Coast Athletic Club and Gold’s Gym.

Lynch thought the abandoned city yard between Jefferson School and Westhaven would be a good site. Norris wondered how we could replicate the success of ACAC and AFC (UVa’s Aquatic Fitness Center).

The difference between city parks and these private facilities is that the city allows anyone to use them. ACAC and AFC have exclusionary policies.

Council took no vote and will ponder the matter.

In another item, Council agreed to continue to designate its Housing Authority as a priority neighborhood for the purpose of Community Development Block Grant funding. Councilors agreed that public housing is more in need than any other neighborhood.

I watched the regular City Council meeting live on Adelphia Channel 10 from 7:26pm til 9:57pm. Next meeting September 4.

Task force studies how to elect school board


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