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Local News in Virginia

Racial Balance of Power Hinges On Appointment

By Leonard E. Colvin

Chief Reporter

New Journal and Guide

On June 8, the Franklin City Council will vote to determine who will occupy the at-large, 4th and 6th seats on the Franklin School Board.

Incumbent Edna King currently sits in the at-large seat, and she is being challenged by Chuck Lilley, former paper mill executive and founder of Volunteers in Public Schools (VIPS).

The incumbents in Wards 4 and 6 school board seats – Sherita Ricks-Parker and Dawna Walton – were not re-nominated.

Instead, Verta Jackson was nominated for Ward 4, and in the Ward 6 seat, Bob Holt was nominated.

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If King is selected again by the council, she will be serving her third three-year term. She has served as chair for the last two years. She said this may be her last term, if she is reappointed.

A retired educator in math and science, King had worked for the Franklin school system before finishing her career with Isle of Wight County Public Schools.

Holt is a former school board member who also served as chair during the 1990s.

The council’s decision comes after several years of weak student performance on the state SOLs and operating under the state’s threat to take control of the division because a number of the schools lost accreditations.

Last year the high school did retain its accreditation. The district hired a new superintendent who has enacted some reforms which the community hopes will reverse some of the division’s problems.

The community and school officials are waiting on the results of the current round of Standards of Learning (SOL) examinations to see if those reforms will bear any fruit.

But this round of the council’s vote on who sits on council is immersed in the troubled troika of race, politics and political alliances.

There has been support for the removal of the School Board Chair Edna King, whose leadership, according to the local newspaper and her opponents, is the reason for the division’s downslide.

King is the lone member of the board who has been nominated for another term and is facing a challenger.

Public speculation about how the council will vote on the reappointment of King is highly intriguing.

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African-Americans control 4-3 both the city council and the school board. And despite the criticism of the policies of the school board, the Black community wants to retain control of that panel.

During the past two elections won by Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn, she did so with support from the Black community and an alliance of business leaders who recruited support for her candidacy in the white community.

Chuck Lilley, a member of that white business leadership, was the mayor’s campaign manager and treasurer in 2012. Now Lilley’s candidacy for the at-large seat on the school board, and the fact that he was granted an interview by the Council during the May 26 council meeting, has stirred some concern in the Black community.

Will Mayor Ashburn support Lilley over Edna King, and deliver the control of the school board to the white community?

It is not sure how any of the council members will vote, to include the African-American members – Ashburn, Mona Murphy, Mary Hilliard and Greg McLemore – and the three white members of the panel.

They could retain King and hope that the current progress of the student performance and Black control of the panel continues.

Or they could succumb to the pressure to replace King and start a new leadership era, in the hope of bolstering the status of the school division.

With the exception of McLemore, none of the other Black members of council responded to a request for an interview with the Guide.

McLemore, who has been at odds with most of his colleagues on most issues facing the city’s governing panel, may play a key role in the political drama related to filling the at-large seat.

“I have not made up my mind yet. I am not thrilled by either candidate,” said McLemore. “So I have three options: I could vote to retain Mrs. King; I could vote to appoint Mr. Lilley; and I could not vote at all.”

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If he does not vote, and there is a 3-3 tie, down racial lines, with a re-vote, King retains her post on the Franklin School Board.

“I think it will be interesting to see if the three African-American women who sit on that council will stay loyal to an African-American who has been loyal to them who sits on the school board,” said McLemore.

McLemore said there is one more dimension to this story: the future of current Franklin School Superintendent Willie J. Bell.

“If King is ousted then, the Superintendent is going to get the door too,” he said. “There is a belief that the problems facing the schools, including the decisions of the Superintendent, are linked to King’s tenure.”

The Mayor is facing other pressure. A group of Black leaders has threatened to organize a boycott of her funeral business if she votes for Lilley, creating another twist to this political drama.

In the late 1990s, in an ironic twist, Ashburn, Hilliard and Murphy led a boycott against the insurance brokerage business of Bob Holt, who is the former school board chairman and current nominee for school board. The boycott sought to force Holt to support the system’s first Black superintendent, Elwood Lewis. Holt closed his business.

In 2008-09, Murphy, Hilliard, and Ashburn waged a boycott against City Councilman Mark Fetherolf’s business, Dominos Pizza. Fetherolf was pressured to vote for Edna King, giving the Black community control of the school board for the first time in city history.

Franklin is the only locale in Hampton Roads which currently allows the council to select the school board. Norfolk recently abandoned the policy and has scheduled its first cycle of school board elections in 2016.

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