Coming Norfolk School Board elections raise concerns

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – City Council made its last two appointments to Norfolk’s school board this week.

And as the newly-appointed members prepare to start their terms on July 1, there are concerns about how the city has decided to transition to an elected school board.

10 On Your Side met the new faces of the board Wednesday. Yvonne Wagner is a recently-retired Booker T. Washington High School teacher. She has worked in classrooms most of her career. As a product of the Norfolk Public School System, she wants to see its growth.

“If I’m going to measure it on a scale of 1 to 10, I would say maybe a 4, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m very optimistic as to where it can be,” Wagner said.

Video: Yvonne Wagner on selecting a schools superintendent

Tanya Bhasin has never taught in the classroom. She is a mother of three with a background in public health research. She has also served on several boards and committees in the system. Her goal for the school board is to have more accountability.

“I have the skill set from my professional background to hopefully provide some insight into developing and then implementing more accountability driven policies,” Bhasin said.

Video: Tanya Bhasin on selecting a schools superintendent

Both women will serve three-year terms, and then they have the option to run for election to stay on the school board. That is something new in the process of selecting Norfolk School Board members.

In the past, city council has hand picked the 7-member school board. But last summer, a grassroots effort started pushing to give parents and Norfolk residents a say in the education process. In the November general election, 85-percent of Norfolk voters showed they want to be able to elect their school board members.

Document: Two ordinances approved in January

So, in January, city council approved two ordinances that legislate a ward-based system to elect board members (the same way city council members are elected). On that, Norfolk’s two newest school-board members disagree.

“As a product of the sixties, I know how things can be and have been, so definitely, I do support the ward system,” Wagner said.

Video: About Yvonne Wagner

Bhasin told WAVY.com, “I personally do not support a ward-based system, because we are moving toward citywide options for our students, and I think the citizens in the city need to be able to vote.”

Thomas Calhoun, president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers, also disagrees with the ward-based system for voting in school board members. He said it’s actually hypocritical for city council members to choose a ward-based system for elections when they never used that system to appoint school board members.

In fact, right now, there are five school board members from Ward 2 and two members from Ward 3.

This month city council made the following decisions to phase in the election process:

  • They reappointed Vice Chair Courtney Doyle and Board Member Brad Robinson for three more years
  • They did not reappoint Board Chair Kirk Houston and Board Member Noelle Gabriel (their terms expire July 1)
  • They picked two new board members (Wagner and Bhasin) for three-year terms (their terms begin July 1)

Council also decided to shorten the terms of three current board members — Dr. Noelle Gabrielle, Edward Haywood, and Rodney Jordan. Their terms will now expire next year, instead of 2017. They can run for election, and Norfolk residents will either elect them or their replacements in May 2016.

Norfolk will not have a fully-elected school board until the terms of Doyle, Robinson, Wagner and Bhasin expire in 2018.

Video: About Tanya Bhasin

Calhoun is not upset about who city council added to the board this month. But he said the process for the coming school-board elections is unstable and ultimately will impact the students.

“This is a nightmare waiting to happen, from where I’m sitting,” Calhoun said. “We’re going to have volatility in the school board for years to come. Policies and programs flow from the top down, not from the bottom up. Teachers don’t create the problems. That’s where the problems end up, in the classroom.”

That process is described in the ordinances approved in January, but one section isn’t totally clear. It reads:

A drawing conducted by the Norfolk Electoral Board will determine which of these two memberships will be vacated upon the arrival of the popularly elected replacements. The Norfolk Electoral Board shall conduct the drawing on July 1, 2015 or as soon thereafter as is practicable.

City Attorney Bernard Pishko provided this reply:

State law governs the transition from school boards appointed by council to boards elected by the people.  The most applicable statutes begin with Virginia Code Section 22.1-57.1.   This state law provides for two members to be elected in 2016.  All current incumbents have terms expiring after 2016.  Accordingly, two incumbents must have their terms shortened in order to make room for the popularly elected members.  The state law provides for a “draw” to determine which two have their terms shortened.  I am not surprised the registrar is unaware of previously conducting such a draw, it’s the only time we have transitioned from an appointed board to an elected board.  Appointments to the school board have been through a dynamic process of identifying people with the desired education, skills, and time, culminating in a nominating process through a public hearing followed by public interviews of the most promising of the candidates.  I’m not sure that I agree that the council has not been careful to assure that all sections (wards) of the city have been represented on the school board.  The school board members have not only been geographically diverse but also diverse in racial and gender composition.  The composition of the school board during the recent appointive process would have satisfied the diverse proportional representation which has been required under the voting rights act.    

Deputy Registrar Stephanie Isles told 10 On Your Side they have not yet set up how the drawing will be done and they don’t know how it will be. This has never been done before in the city.

It remains unclear who will become Board Chair when Houston’s term expires next week.

Stay with WAVY.com for updates on this story.

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