Speaking at the Congregational Church on West College, the group “Save Our Schools- Jacksonville” held an open meeting to give more information about their desire to see the board of education elected in a ward-based system instead of at-large.
The group submitted close to 900 petition signatures to force the school board to establish a referendum in the April elections.
The argument of “Save Our Schools” is that District 117 is disproportionately represented by board members living in the school zones of Eisenhower, South and Murrayville schools.
Out of 140 past and present school board members the group was able to obtain data on, 66 were from Eisenhower. 24 were from the Murrayville and South school zones each. Just 26 lived in the areas served by Washington and the now-closed Franklin school.
MacMurray College social work professor Emily Ralph, who organized the meeting, says at-large elections gained renewed popularity after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, claiming it became a way for local governments to negate the minority vote.
The group says two African-Americans have served on the school board in Jacksonville in the last three decades.
Ralph says many people who signed the petition told her they feel disenfranchised and voiceless when it comes to decisions made by District 117.
“Having thousands of conversations with people throughout the district, most people understand how the city council’s elected, and so it wasn’t hard to explain to them that the school district should be elected in the same way so that every area of town is represented and every vote counts," says Ralph. "Most people found that to be a no-brainer, and they didn’t understand why the system wasn’t currently designed that way."
“I think the theme from tonight and the theme from the petition drive is that everyone wants this question to be put on the ballot, and that people in the community are confused as to why they couldn’t decide themselves and why the question can’t just be put on the ballot to then determine what the public wants,” says Ralph.
The group believes a ward-based system makes the school board members more accountable for their decisions and more responsive and accessible to their constituents.
Several members of the District 117 school board were in attendance last night. Steve Cantrell says he was there to become more informed.
“The questions I was hearing is not understanding. Seems like some confusion, and I think I heard somebody [ask] if we re-do the boundaries, wouldn’t it be the same thing as the ward?” says Cantrell. “Now I’ll go home and do some research and then, I’ll be able to form a decision on how I want to vote if it does come to a vote on the ballot.”
Jennifer DeWitt, Mike Lonergan and Beth Fender were also at the meeting, in addition to interim superintendent Barbara Suelter.
The school board could vote by January 22nd to place the question of changing the election model before voters in the spring. As of now, “Save Our Schools” has the necessary signatures to force the matter.
An objection to the petition would have to be filed by Monday.