Richmond County’s educational system was broadsided last week by legislation that nearly nullified last year’s school board referendum vote.
On Feb. 7, many educators, local officials and concerned citizens were shocked after the Northern Neck News discovered wording buried deep inside a House Bill that would have abolished school board selection commissions, something local voters overwhelmingly voted against during last year’s failed attempt to switch to an elected system.
On face value, HB1926 seemed to cover “Risk Management for Public Liability.” Back loaded onto the end of the bill, however, was a separate section patroned by Del. Rick Morris (R-Carrollton) that would have eradicated “school board selection commissions in school divisions composed of a single county.”
The bill, if passed, would have given county supervisors “powers and duties previously held by the school board selection commission, including selection of the school board.”
Morris’s bill also aimed at eliminating referendums as a method of authorizing school board appointments.
But yesterday, after a strong turnout at the state’s capitol by many concerned officials, a senate subcommittee killed the bill.
When the news first hit that the bill had been unanimously passed by the members of the House, including local representative Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Kinsale), and was scheduled to be heard by the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Public Education (HPE), shockwaves rippled through the community.
When contacted, on Feb. 7, Ransone said she was unaware that Richmond County had a judge-appointed school board selection commission, despite the flood of media coverage regarding that same issue during last year’s highly debated proposal to switch to a publicly elected board.
She added that she would investigate any and all ways to exclude the district from the bill.
Immediately following that statement’s publication, social media and websites were flooded with citizens voicing their concerns, many wondering why the county had not been made aware of the bill when it was first introduced on Jan. 9.
“Traditionally, when a bill or pending legislation is going to impact you there is a courtesy that is generally expected that officials are informed about the legislation and given a fair opportunity to present their case,” said Richmond County Schools Superintendent Greg Smith in a Feb. 8 interview. “That didn’t take place here and is very disconcerting.”
That same day, Smith and a group of area educators, board members and concerned citizens travelled to Richmond, storming the capitol with their concerns over the bill’s ramifications.
“We targeted members of the Senate House and Public Education (HPE) committee, pushing this hard and questioning where this came from,” Smith said. “There was broad-based support for our concern that this popped up and was a surprise. We pushed hard that we wanted this defeated, if not, we want to be removed from it based upon the latest election results from Richmond County last November.”
The news of the bill also came as a surprise to officials from Accomack and Southampton Counties, the latter of which falls under Morris’s constituency, who would also have been affected by the bill.
“Even [the Southampton] school system did not have any warning, nor did their board of supervisors have an idea that this was taking place,” Smith said. “It is an innocuously titled piece of legislation. It was buried and it also led to the Virginia School Board Association and Association of Superintendents not having a flag about this bill. They had no way to track this to ensure there was a balanced conversation taking place.”
When contacted on Feb. 7, Morris said he had public support behind him and, citing alleged claims of local corruption in the Southampton school system, said that he was “shocked” that any county would not want to put board member selection into the hands of elected county officials.
“I would say that I would be very surprised that people do not want accountability to the taxpayers,” Morris said.
Morris said his concern was budgetary, but when asked how this would affect the educational school budget line item, already controlled by county supervisors, Morris skirted the question. Instead, he said that he felt the inquiry was argumentative and reiterated his stance that the decision over school board selection should be a democratic matter.
When informed of the recent referendum, which overwhelmingly supported the current judge-appointed school board selection commission, Morris described the action as “Un-American.”
“The judge is accountable to no one and they can stack the school board as to whomever they want,” he said.
Responding to local rumors of back-door dealings, Morris said that he has never had contact with or received any fiscal support from any citizen or official in Richmond County.
He added that if the citizens of Richmond County were afraid to put the selection system into the hands of their local supervisors, they needed to “find new officials.”
On Monday, when local officials again took to Richmond, officials from Accomack County, Southampton County, the Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia School Board Association and the Association of Superintendents joined them where they again voiced concerns regarding HB1926’s ramifications.
After receiving overwhelming support from members of the HPE, the bill was defeated, with one Morris staffer calling it “dead.”
“The process that Richmond County experienced last year was heard, it was on the ballot, debated by the public and voted on,” Smith said Monday. “That is how transparent government should work and any other method to usurp that is unacceptable.”
Kevin Poindexter, a spokesman for the Ransone office, confirmed that the bill was “not expected to move any further.”
Smith, who has worked for both independently appointed and elected school boards said that the vote ensured that politics would not enter local schools.
“This is a victory for all three localities. Their citizens voice and choice of leadership in their schools will be upheld,” he said.