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Voters will decide the future of Hanover County School Board

With expanding voting access, campaigns and issue advocacy groups have had more difficulty comparing turnout numbers to previous elections.
Jahd Khalil
Radio IQ

Rural Hanover County, just north of Richmond, will decide if the citizens, not its Board of Supervisors, will pick its school board members via a referendum this year.

It’s a long running fight that dates back to the Jim Crow-era, but the county’s high-quality schools have put the potential for a change on the back burner in recent years.

According to the ACLU of Virginia, the use of appointed school boards started in 1901 as part of the Commonwealth’s white population seeking to limit the power of Black voters. Most of Virginia’s more than 100 school boards switched to publicly elected in the early 1990s, but more than a dozen, including Hanover, decided otherwise.

For Tim McDermott with Hanover Citizens for an Elected School Board the dispute is about giving citizens a bigger voice in their local government. “More than anything it makes sense that I’ve got a vote in who that representative is going to be,” he said.

McDermott was living in Chesapeake when its school board switched to elected instead of appointed in 1993. He said it wasn’t as controversial back then, and what little debate he heard, it was mostly from parents' discussion in support of elections as their school aged kids played soccer. He didn't notice much change in the school system's operation after the change either.

He moved out of Virginia, but back to Hanover years later, and started volunteering with the elected school board campaign last year. That year he and other volunteers failed to collect the signatures of 10 percent of voters required to get the issue on the ballot. But this year, with help from headline making book bans passed by the current school board, the measure will be before the voters.

“I think they noticed, and I think, at least from the people we spoke to after that action was taken, that got people’s attention,” McDermott said of the controversial removal of books.

Still, some big-name Virginia politicos, including former Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, warn an elected school board would be more conservative and controversial than what currently exists.

“It is inevitable that School Board members will quickly become politicians, and the decisions they make will be based on political and ideological impact, not on what is best for students,” Bolling wrote in the local conservative blog Bearing Drift.

But McDermott, who identifies as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, wondered if it was even possible for the school board to get any more conservative than it already is.

Instead, he suggested, if things get too political, the citizens will have the chance to vote things back to the middle.

“The slow swing of a pendulum,” he said. “But we don’t have that capability now.”

Among those who argue things should stay the way they are is Hanover Board of Supervisors Chair Canova Peterson. Peterson has been involved in the school board appointment process since he took office in 2012. He said he personally vets every candidate over coffee, and if the voters disagree with who he and the board appoint, they can vote them out of office.

“What we’re dealing with is a system that works well,” he said, pointing to the school system's full accreditation and 95.6% graduation rate.

He also said the appointment process has kept a good working relationship between school board members and the BOS, especially when it comes down to complex funding issues which could otherwise limit the school board's power.

“We work together for the children, and it’s proven its effectiveness for Hanover County,” he said, suggesting they don’t see spats between the two administrative bodies like other localities due.

McDermott doesn’t buy that argument: “A healthy disagreement is what’s good for democracy, it’s what this country does,” he said.

And for residents who seek more accountability, Peterson said they can vote him or their local supervisor out if they don’t like the work the school board member is doing.

“We’re the one where the buck stops,” he said.

As for the history of school board appointments in the state, Peterson said, while the method might be rooted in the state’s racist past, that doesn’t mean it’s still achieving the same dubious goal.

“It may have been the wrong intentions at the time, but what we’re dealing with is a system that works well,” he said.

McDermott, meanwhile, harkened back to his own time attending public schools in Norfolk many decades ago. He admitted he may not know enough about the state’s use of race in school board policy to say if it’s impacting his work today, but he remembered what he was taught in school, and how concerns about indoctrination today appear to have turned on their head.

“That was what I was taught in school, that slavery was good for slave owners and the slaves,” he said. “So guess who was indoctrinated? Me.”

Neither Peterson nor McDermott are sure of how the vote will go, but they’ll find out together after the referendum is completed Tuesday.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.