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Elected Norfolk School Board petition reaches goal

Jordan Crawford | 8/19/2014, 12:50 p.m.
Norfolk Citizens for an Elected School Board (NCESB) gathered enough valid signatures to put the matter of citizen-elected School Board ...
Joan Maguire, organizer of Norfolk Citizens for an Elected School Board, collects signatures at the Mary D. Pretlow branch of the Norfolk Public Library in Ocean View

They came, they petitioned and they may eventually conquer. As school kids adjust to new teachers, classmates, class schedules and academic expectations, supporters of an elected Norfolk School Board may welcome a long awaited adjustment of their own.

Norfolk Citizens for an Elected School Board (NCESB) gathered enough valid signatures to put the matter of citizen-elected School Board members up for a vote in November, Circuit Court Clerk George Schaefer said last Wednesday.

The voter registrar validated 11,582 signatures— two more than necessary for a referendum— Schaefer said in an email. His office was formally notified last Thursday so a judge could issue an order for the election.

The results of that vote will determine whether the seven-member board will continue to be appointed by the City Council or chosen directly by city residents.

If the referendum passes, a School Board election would occur with the next City Council election, in May 2016. The board would remain the same size. School Board members could be elected at-large or the City Council could establish districts similar to the city’s ward system.

For nearly 60 years, City Council has appointed Norfolk’s School Board, the only city in South Hampton Roads and one of the few in the state to do so. All the others are elected. Until recently, Norfolk members served two-year terms, but education groups pushed for and won longer terms in an effort to provide more stability.

Electing school officials would give city voters a chance to weigh in on who represents them and how well they’re doing, organizer Joan Maguire said.

“We still have failing schools,” she said. “Everybody in Norfolk needs to wake up and see that we need a change.”

Supporters of the petition argue that elected officials are more accountable to the public and can help turn around the struggling division.

Norfolk’s schools are among the lowest-performing in the state, based on standardized test scores. In March, the school board approved a division-wide turnaround plan called the Transformation Initiative recommended by Superintendent Samuel King. Still, some residents have criticized the board for a lack of transparency regarding school projects and called for better communication.

“If they’re doing their job, great. If they’re not, we can fire them by voting them out,” said Maguire.

NCESB said it submitted 17,000 signatures on July 16. For weeks, the registrar has been combing through the signatures to verify that they are valid.

Previous petition drives failed to get enough signatures. This time, organizers began collecting signatures early this year, setting up tables at libraries, government agencies and School Board meetings.