Senate kills House-backed measure on elected school boards

Legislation could have put school board representation up for local referenda

By: - February 21, 2023 12:02 am

Senate lawmakers killed a bill that could have put school board representation up for local referenda. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

A proposal that could have led to fewer appointed school boards in Virginia by allowing voters to decide by referendum if their local board should be elected died in the Senate Friday. 

Senators killed House Bill 1574, which would have impacted 15 school boards, with an 11-27 vote. 

Virginia school systems governed by appointed school boards

  • Alleghany Highlands Public Schools 
  • Franklin City Public Schools
  • Galax City Public Schools
  • Hanover County Public Schools
  • Hopewell City Public Schools
  • Lexington City Schools
  • Lynchburg City Schools
  • Manassas Park City Schools
  • Martinsville City Public Schools
  • Poquoson City Public Schools
  • Richmond County Public Schools
  • Roanoke City Public Schools
  • Salem City Schools
  • Southampton County Public Schools
  • ​Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools

Source: Virginia School Boards Association

“We feel like our school system does a pretty good job, not perfect, but they do a pretty good job and this would change the process by which those members of a school board can be appointed,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, on Friday.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, warned the legislation could create further contention between governing bodies and school boards already arguing over issues such as funding. 

“I just don’t think this is a good idea,” Deeds said.  

While most of Virginia’s more than 130 school boards are elected, the Virginia School Boards Association said 15 are still appointed by elected members of local governing bodies like boards of supervisors and city councils. Those include the school boards that oversee the Hanover, Alleghany Highlands, Manassas Park, Martinsville and Roanoke public school systems.

Some of the remaining appointed boards have come under fire in recent years from citizens frustrated with issues such as COVID-19 and transgender student policies. Groups including the Virginia NAACP and ACLU of Virginia have also urged school systems to move toward elected school boards.

Last year, the Virginia NAACP launched the “Why We Can’t Wait” campaign in favor of the elected model after displeasure with the school board appointment process in Hanover.  

The proposed legislation would have let local governments petition a circuit court for a referendum asking voters if the school board should be elected. A supermajority of the local governing body would have been required to back the petition.

Under current law, voters must collect signatures from at least 10% of the registered electorate to ask a court for a referendum on whether the school board should be elected by voters. 

In Hanover, supporters of elected school boards said they were unable to collect enough signatures to petition the circuit court for a referendum.

McDougle said the process is not “broken” under the current system and there’s “no reason to change it to let the board bypass citizen involvement in the petition process.”

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, also opposed the bill, saying he didn’t believe the legislation would make school boards “more responsive to the people.” 

However, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, urged the Senate to consider passing the legislation, saying, “It’s just a simpler way to get the decision directly to the voters.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, noted a supermajority of the governing body would be required to put the question to a referendum. 

“Initiating a referendum is not an easy task, but the requirement for a supermajority still ensures that it will only happen if there is sufficient will of the people to do it,” she said.

Prior to 1992, nearly all school boards in Virginia were appointed. In that year, however, Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, carried a bill allowing local governments to hold a referendum on electing the boards. After the General Assembly passed the law, the majority of Virginia localities switched to elected boards.

“It’s not like this is just a Republican issue. This is a parent’s issue. This is an individual issue,” Walker said last month to the Mercury. “It’s democracy, not politics. It’s about giving people choices on the most important decisions regarding the education of their children.”


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.