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Do Appointed School Boards Allow Political Interference in Class?

Issue raised in Hanover County censorship controversy.



When controversy spilled out in Hanover County about a county supervisor’s alleged attempts to censor what instruction students receive at Hanover High School, a question cropped up.

Did an appointed school board, rather than an elected one, contribute to the dispute?

Online commenters discussing a recent Style Weekly story about alleged censorship in the county schools forced by Henry District Supervisor Sean Davis, a conservative Republican, seem to believe that the Board of Supervisors has too much influence over the School, Board and administration.

That helps the supervisors inappropriately dictate what movies and art can be viewed and what can be discussed or displayed in class, they say.

“Perhaps it's time for HANOVER County to have an Elected school board rather than appointments by supervisors, especially those that impose narrow-mindedness into the education of our young people,” one commenter wrote.

In Virginia, 111 localities have elected school boards, according to Martin Mash of the Virginia Department of Elections. There are 113 electoral systems in the state, although he warns that some cities and counties have merged systems.

Hanover is something of an anomaly, especially because most large metropolitan areas in the state have elected boards, says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor and analyst at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. The City of Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties all have elected school boards. “That makes Hanover an outlier,” he says.

Farnsworth says that there are problems with both elected and appointed school boards. “The situation is neither fish nor fowl,” he says. Elected boards still have to go to supervisors to get their budgets approved. Unless the school boards have more spending authority, their power can be undercut by supervisors because they have budget approval, Farnsworth says.

While there’s “no clear line of responsibility” in Virginia regarding the authority of schools boards and supervisors, the issue is tremendously important, he says: “The future of a community depends on the schools. They are a definition of a community. There are constant efforts to control what people read.”

Whether that matters with today’s technology is another matter. “Kids are inventive and they’ll find anything online to read,” he says.

In 2011, two Republican delegates from Northern Virginia, David Albo and Tim Hugo, pushed legislation in the General Assembly to make all school boards appointed. According to them, elected school boards are able to spend taxpayer money without bearing the responsibility of having to set tax rates.

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