The event was held at Jacksonville’s city council meeting room. Former District 117 superintendent Dr. Robert Crowe, who served in that position from 1975 to 1992, gave a 40-minute talk detailing why he believes changing from at-large representation for school board members would be the wrong move.
Voters will decide the matter in next month’s election.
Crowe says one of his biggest concerns with electing the board through a ward system is the potential lack of choice.
“The idea is proposed that there will be a lot more candidates when you have seven districts, but we look at the other places where this is happened, and there are not more candidates being generated by this system,” says Crowe.
“For example, right now there is an election in Urbana- they’re doing all seven seats- and six of them have no opposition. And yet, we’re to believe that if we go to this system, all of a sudden there are going to be a lot of people who take out petitions.
"My greatest concern is in those situations where there is no competition, the only person who files is automatically placed on the board of education, and I think that’s a frightening possibility,” he continues.
All seven seats are running in Urbana because the school board was redistricted in 2010.
Crowe noted that a ward-based system can be expensive, pointing out that Urbana had to hire a law firm to help sort out the process of dividing the map into wards. He says drawing the lines for the boundaries is going to be a matter of crisis.
“Most people think that each school is going to get their own representative in the elementary boundary lines, and that’s just not going to be the case. These lines are going to be re-drawn, and I don’t think anybody’s going to like what’s going to result when those lines are drawn that has 4,000 people in each group,” says Crowe. “This district is going to be carved up in a map that is unlike any map that anybody’s ever seen so far.”
But Emily Ralph, the head of the group Citizens For a Ward-Based Community, disagrees.
“Dr. Crowe presented information on redistricting that was not necessarily relevant. When you change to draw districts for the purposes of voting, it is not that complicated,” she says. “We have models from other cities that have done it, and it’s done for the purposes of voting only. I don’t think it will be controversial.”
District 117 currently includes a population of about 28,000.
It was pointed out at last night’s meeting that in the last 20 years, if District 117 was divided into areas represented by elementary schools, the areas of Washington, North, Franklin, Lincoln and Jefferson- two of which have since closed- have had 12 out of the last 70 elected board members.
Eisenhower Elementary, meanwhile, has had 33 members.
Ralph maintains that certain areas of town do not have a voice, and there was support at last night’s meeting for the ward-based model.
“They haven’t had a voice in decades, and the at-large model is never going to give them a voice,” says Ralph. “We heard from parents who would run in a 4,000-member area district. We heard from people that have felt that the current system does not provide an allocation of resources that is representing all areas of town.”
Crowe noted that at one point during his time as superintendent, three candidates filed for four seats. The school board had to choose a fourth candidate, and he believes today’s board would deal with controversy if it has to appoint someone in a ward where no one runs, as required by state law.
This year, eight people are running for three spots on the school board.