Referendum fails in Richmond County

Lowery Pemberton, dressed as an apple, visited all the polls on Nov. 6 in support of the “Vote No” campaign.

Richmond County voters last week rejected a referendum vote to switch from an appointed to an elected school board, a move that some said would have politicized a currently apolitical body.

With all six precincts reporting in just before 11 p.m. on Nov. 6, the unofficial results posted by the State Board of Elections showed that the call to change from an elected school board to an appointed one failed by an estimated 62- to 36-percent margin, or 2,304 to 1,393 votes, in favor of the “Vote No” movement.

“This is a victory for the children of the Richmond County Public Schools and the future of our county,” said School Board Vice-Chair Brenda Pemberton in an interview just after the results had been announced.

The issue had been hotly contested in recent months, dividing the county amongst those who believe that politics should be kept out of schools and those who believe there should be a voter-regulated system of accountability with an emphasis on a more conservative educational budget.

Fueling the fires was the reasoning behind the referendum, with many calling it a political power play by a small group of influential citizens.

However, once the poll results came in, it was obvious that when it comes to local schools, there is no “politics as usual,” school officials agree.

“This vote is a reflection of the confidence that the public has in the current board, in the system for selection which is greatly contingent on the consideration of an individual candidate’s credentials, reflects the public’s satisfaction with the quality of the Richmond County Public Schools and the direction that we are currently moving,” said Superintendent Dr. Greg Smith in a Nov. 12 interview.

School Board Chairman John Brown agreed, adding that the entire campaign against the referendum was run in a clean, ethical, respectful and diplomatic manner.

“I am quite frankly very satisfied with the way the vote went,” Brown said. “I honestly believe that this is better. I think given the kind of appointments that have been made in the past, the school board selection commission has done an excellent job, devoid of politics. If it is working well, don’t fix it.”

It is important to note that at no point during the process had any of the current board members’ motives, background or history been questioned or brought into any negative light. Additionally, Richmond County’s schools recently scored highest in the region in standardized tests and were ranked amongst a select few in the state whose district met the annual standards of progress set by the commonwealth.

Carter Wellford, a member of the local citizens group Concerned Tax Payers of Richmond County, was responsible for getting the referendum on the ballot after receiving and filing the necessary petition signatures. In campaign literature, the group behind the “Vote Yes” movement claimed that citizens are left out of the school board selection process and should be able to hold school board members accountable due to their oversight of a large part of the annual county budget.

When contacted, Wellford had no comment regarding the referendum’s failure, saying only that he had no current plans to pursue any other actions regarding the school or the board.

Wellford directed all questions to compatriot Rusty Acree, one of the contenders not chosen to serve on the school board when his district’s seat opened up this year. Acree did not return calls as of presstime on Tuesday.

An analysis of what went wrong for Wellford’s referendum indicated that the loss had less to do with the merits of a voter-regulated school board and more to do with what area voters felt worked best for the small, rural school system.

Throughout Election Day, that message was revealed in at the polls, as voters chose to stick with a system that has consistently improved in recent years while adjoining counties who have elected school boards have consistently underperformed.

Officials at the Virginia School Board Association also noted that in rural areas there is often little public interest in running for a school board seat, with many localities reporting that candidates with little to no educational experience were elected after small write-in campaigns.

Spreading the information and benefits regarding having an appointed board was the “Vote No” camp, led by the grassroots civic organization Richmond County Community Pride.

For weeks, members and supporters, many of whom are local educators or parents of school children, had adorned their cars, put up signs and marched in parades to spread their message.

And, as members of the group, joined by former Superintendent Dr. Marilyn Barr and a flock of educators and officials, listened to the results on Nov. 6, a resounding cheer went up in celebration over their victory in the hard fought battle.

“We want to thank the voters who made this about Richmond County and doing what is right for us here, not other counties,” said group spokesperson Hillary Pugh on Nov. 12, adding that she was very appreciative of the efforts of all the volunteers who helped keep school board selection contingent upon on qualifications and not agendas.

“I think that we learned that every vote counts. It takes a lot of people to make something successful and this showed the dedication and passion that people have for the schools in this county,” Pugh said. “Parents, teachers and just members of the public teamed together and we thank them because this certainly could not have been done alone.”

Brown echoed that sentiment.

“People stood up and it made me happy to see the system work,” he said. “The way it was handled, people had the information they needed to make an intelligent decision and they rose to the occasion.”

Brown added that this was an example of participatory government at its best.

“I watched it work. This is what our forefathers were hoping for,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to getting back to business as usual, ensuring that every child in the district receives the best education possible.

“The tremendous support of the education of each child in this district is a means to a brighter future not just for the students, but for all of the county,” Pemberton said.

Posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 9:11 am