By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
A coalition of three groups is urging the Norfolk City Council to drop the ward system for electing school board members. The coalition delivered some 1,600 names from a petition drive to city leaders this week.
The Norfolk Branch of the NAACP and education advocacy groups, Norfolk GAINS and Better Together Norfolk make up the coalition calling for city council to drop the ward system which it adopted in late January.
In its place, the coalition wants the council to adopt a “hybrid” geographic district and at-large election plan calling for citywide accountability and geographic representation diversity on the board.
Instead of each voter being able to elect two members of the school board, as they now do with the ward system for city council, they will be able to elect all seven school board members.
The plan calls for two school board members to be elected at-large.
Five of the board members would be elected from “geographic districts” which reflect the boundaries used to draw the wards for the seven members of Norfolk’s eight-member council.
According to the plan, school board candidates could reside in any one of the seven districts where they choose to seek a seat.
But to assure city wide accountability, candidates would be required to run “at-large.” Citizens could vote for a candidate in their home districts as well as candidates in districts across the city.
Supporters of this plan say that candidates must show they have interests working for adequate resources not only in their respective geographic district, but city wide.
This plan is “less limited” than the ward-based system, which Norfolk City Council voted to adopt in late January, according to the coalition.
Critics of the plan say it is just another version of the at-large system, which many Black leaders have various concerns about.
“If they are not careful there is going to be six Whites and one Black person on that school board,” said Council person Paul Riddick, who supports the ward system.
“It seems the people supporting this (Geographic Districts Plan) plan are very naive and do not know the political history of the city or have studied the Collins’ case which abolished at-large election in this city.”
For a traditional at-large system, if there are seven seats open on the school board in a given election cycle, the candidates receiving the five highest number of votes would win a seat on panel.
According to Andria P. McClellan of Better Together Norfolk, the council has 30 days after receiving the petitions to act on the request.
She said if the council fails to adhere to the demands of the petition, then the coalition will launch another petition drive to secure enough signatures of Norfolk residents to call for a referendum to allow voters to decide if they want to overturn the council’s decision.
McClellan said the coaltion has sent a letter to council from the three groups urging the council to adopt their plan and “open up the dialogue on the issue.”
The “geographic district” plan was devised by the Norfolk NAACP and announced to the community earlier this year, when other plans were announced as alternatives to the ward plan, according to Joe Dillard, president of the civil rights group.
It rivaled the plans proposed by two education advocacy groups which did not support the pure ward plan adopted by the council.
Norfolk Gains initially supported an at-large plan. Better Together Norfolk preferred the at-large/ward hybrid, which was backed by Norfolk Council person Tommy Smiegel.
According to members of the two education advocacy groups, the two organizations met in February, but failed to agree on a plan to put before council. They did agree to conduct a petition drive.
Sources inside the coalition said Norfolk GAINS and Better Together Norfolk failed to communicate after that initial February joint meeting and were unable to come to an accord on a single plan until recently.
Once the two groups finally agreed to reestablish communication and meet in late May, the NAACP, according to Dillard, was invited to participate in the talks.
Dillard said he told leaders of the two groups that the NAACP was no fan of the ward, at-large or hybrid plans and reintroduced the civil rights group’s proposal.
“We put our plan on the table and we said it was the only one we would support,” said Dillard. “None of us wanted wards of any kind and there was skepticism about a pure at-large plan in the Black community. So the NAACP plan was a compromise each of the groups could agree on at this point.”
Dillard said the NAACP also rejected the idea of the coalition recruiting and backing a “slate” of candidates for each of the districts because it “would attract too much resistance from civic and political groups in the city.”
Dillard said the NAACP convinced leaders of the other groups to adopt the “Geographic District Model” if they wanted the civil rights group’s backing to secure an alternative to the plan adopted by the council.
The coalition’s plan has drawn fire from constituencies who support the pure at-large, hybrid or ward-based systems.
The objection appears to be that the ability of voters to cross geopolitical lines to vote for candidates in other parts of the city stirs feelings of cross city political meddling in the political cultures different from their own.
The biggest concern among Black leaders is the low turn out among voters in majority Black wards of the city. This could deter African-Americans from selecting candidates of their choice.
Also, deep pocketed political activists from the city’s West end could have an advantage in being elected.
Once upon a time, the Norfolk NAACP supported the ward system. In the early 1990s it won a long legal battle against the city in federal court to abolish the at-large system, claiming that low Black voter turnout and White bloc voting trends deterred African-Americans from choosing candidates of their choice.
At the time the case was won, there were two Blacks on council. After the ward system was put in place, Blacks secured three seats on the panel, because there were three majority Black wards.
Today although Blacks make up close to half of the city’s population, turnout among eligible Black voters is often less than 12 percent, especially during local non -residential election years.
Black leaders say that if there was a greater Black voter turn, Blacks could secure another seat on council and even the mayor seat’s which is elected at-large.