The city’s NAACP held a forum on the subject of changing from an at-large model to a ward-based representation system in advance of an April election that will feature the choice on the ballot.
Members of the audience submitted questions to a three-member panel that included recent Congressional Gold Medal winner Richard Johnson, Virginia School District special educator Michael Viles, and WLDS-WEAI General Manager Gary Scott. All three also gave their opinions.
Supporters of a ward-based model say that it would bring more diversity. It’s been decades since the only two minorities to serve on the school board- Tracy Ambrose and Jo Anna Caldwell- were elected.
Johnson was one of the voices on the panel in support of the proposed change.
“A ward-based system would have the opportunity of bringing about changes and support that they hadn’t had before,” says Johnson. “For example, in the past, we’ve had potential school closures, and those neighborhood schools- those neighborhood people- brought real pressure to the board.”
Viles says there’s a danger when the majority of voters run the show.
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing, except that our government was set up as majority rule and minority right,” Viles says.
“In other words, the minority should still have a right and a voice in within the government. I’m afraid with the way the system is set up today, the minority is not getting a voice, just like state government. If we had an at-large system electing our representatives in state government, whoever has the most votes- which would obviously be Chicago- would be choosing all of our representatives, so we wouldn’t necessarily down here in downstate have anyone to talk to,” he continues.
Scott says keeping the at-large model could help limit divisiveness.
“I fear that if we pass a ward-based system, that that will further incite people to think in terms of ‘my school’ instead of ‘our school,’” says Scott. “When you’re elected in your ward, your first obligation, I think in your heart, is to take care of ‘my school.’ That’s one of the problems I think we have in this school district today, and we’re not coming together.”
He adds that a ward-based model could further restrict voter input.
““We’ve got eight candidates for three seats on the school board, and I think the key is to get people to the polls as much as possible,” he says. “If you have a ward-based system, you’re voting for your ward once every four years. If it’s an at-large system, you’re voting for either three or four candidates every two years. [There’s] more of an opportunity for debate, more people to come forward, and more reason to cast a vote.”
Scott said voter turnout in 2009 and 2011 was highest in the areas where the school board members are from. The current board is from the school zones of Murrayville, South and Eisenhower.
He added that Waverly School District, which elects members of the school board in a ward-based system, has tried in two elections to go back to an at-large model, only to have the measure fail despite almost everyone in the city of Waverly voting for it.
Scott stated that he was representing himself last night, not WLDS-WEAI.
About 50 people turned out for last night’s forum, including current members of the District 117 school board.