Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg. Courtesy of Wendell Walker.

Republicans won a majority on the Lynchburg City Council last November by running on a platform that, among other things, called for the city to have an elected school board.

Now Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, is sponsoring legislation (HB 1574) that would make that easier to happen. Under current law, advocates of an elected school board have to submit a petition with the signatures of at least 10% of a locality’s registered voters. In Lynchburg, that would mean more than 5,600. Walker’s bill would let a locality’s governing body simply vote to put the question on the ballot.

If Walker is successful, we’d have a political irony: a conservative Republican helping to further the work started by a liberal Democrat. 

Virginia was the last state in the country to have elected school boards; the General Assembly didn’t authorize them until 1992. When it did so, the main proponent was Del. David Brickley, D-Prince William County. 

The politics of elected school boards in Virginia used to be clear; now they are much more politically complicated. In a sign of that complication, a House subcommittee this week approved Walker’s bill 5-3 — with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the question.

Let’s rewind to when things were simpler, for better or for worse: “Appointed school boards are part of the legacy of Virginia’s post-Reconstruction period, during which the state’s white leaders sought to limit the political influence of African-Americans,” Kent Willis, then state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in 1992. Keep in mind that Virginia’s post-Reconstruction state constitution was considered progressive for its time – too progressive for the state’s conservative establishment. In 1901, a state convention drew up a new constitution with the specific goal of restricting the electorate – most Black voters and many poor whites were enthusiastically disenfranchised. Proposals to allow elected school boards were emphatically voted down. J.B.T. Thornton, a convention delegate from Prince William County, pointed out that many Virginia counties had Black majorities, which meant they might elect a Black majority to the school board. “That is a condition of affairs that is abhorrent,” he declared. Disenfranchising Black voters, and forbidding elected school boards, doubly ensured that would not happen.

Nevertheless, calls for elected school boards persisted. “Between 1918 and 1927, four separate state legislative studies concluded that appointed school boards should be abandoned in favor of elected school boards,” Willis wrote. “But the General Assembly refused to follow the recommendations and continued to ban school board elections.”

Demographic changes started to change the politics of one county that had been reliably Southern in its outlook – Arlington County. This is where modern-day Northern Virginia started. In 1947, the General Assembly relented and allowed this unusually restive county to elect its school board. Then, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in its Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, Arlington voted to integrate its schools. This was anathema to the conservative Democrats of the Byrd Machine who controlled state government. They promptly revoked Arlington’s ability to elect its school board.

The ACLU sued Virginia in 1987, alleging that appointed school boards violated the Voting Rights Act. The courts didn’t agree but public sentiment was shifting. In 1992, the General Assembly finally relented. The vote was close. News reports at the time portrayed the vote as a split along geographical lines – more suburban legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, voted in favor. More rural legislators, then mostly Democrats, voted against. However, some Black legislators were reported to be concerned about elected school boards, fearing that minority voters would not wind up being as well-represented as they were on appointed school boards. That was the first sign of how things could get complicated.

Generally speaking, when Virginia voters have been asked whether they want an elected school board, they’ve almost always said yes – by thunderous margins. It’s been very rare that elected school boards have been voted down; the first two were Danville and Salem, although Danville later changed its mind.

Only 15 school systems have appointed school boards, and that will soon become just 12. Last November, voters in Alleghany County and Covington (who jointly operate the Alleghany Highlands system), Lexington and Southampton County all voted to switch to elected school boards. Those votes show how the politics cuts across the board. Alleghany County, Covington and Southampton County are all conservative localities that these days reliably vote for Republicans; Lexington is one of the most Democratic localities in the state. They all wanted elected school boards. In Alleghany County, the vote was 87% yes. In Covington, it was 90%. 

Once those localities start electing their school board members, these are the 12 localities that will be left appointing theirs:

Franklin (city)

Galax  

Hanover County 

Hopewell 

Lynchburg

Manassas Park 

Martinsville

Poquoson

Richmond County 

Roanoke 

Salem

​Williamsburg/James City County 

If you’re looking for commonalities there, you’ll have to look hard because I have a hard time finding them. Some of these are urban localities, some are rural. Some are strongly Republican, some are strongly Democratic. I suspect what’s really at play is a combination of inertia and unique local politics. Of these localities, I know Roanoke best after having worked for The Roanoke Times for 39 years. Roanoke is a majority white city (61%) but white students constitute a minority of public school students (about 32%). The unspoken rationale for an appointed rather than an elected school board has been that if voters elected the school board, then Roanoke might wind up with a majority-white or even all-white school board governing a school system where a majority of students are people of color. By having an appointed school board, the Roanoke City Council has always been able to make sure there was sufficient Black representation on the school board (however you define “sufficient”). At present, three of the city’s seven school board members are Black (the same as the racial composition of the city council). In 2021, a petition drive led by a white Democrat to get a referendum on an elected school board came up thousands of signatures short. While the signature requirements are high, that hasn’t been an obstacle in other localities – so it seems fair to say there’s simply not much clamor in Roanoke for an elected school board. Apparently there is in Lynchburg.

It does seem odd to me that a locality can’t simply put something on the ballot, but Virginia has always been a state that didn’t like too much democracy, and an aversion to ballot initiatives is part of that. If Walker is successful in making such votes easier, the conservative Lynchburg legislator will find himself in the company of a long line of liberal pro-election advocates that dates back more than a century.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.