Residents of Virginia locality fight to revert to appointed school board

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — Portsmouth residents want the city to become the first Virginia locality to switch back to an appointed school board since the General Assembly first allowed elected boards in 1992.

“You need to go to a system that works,” said Doug Eames, who is leading a petition drive to collect the more than 5,600 signatures necessary to put the issue on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

Since Portsmouth voters first elected school board members in 1996, the board has become divided racially and the members have become increasingly combative, Mr. Eames said.

Three black board members took their peers to court in 2002 over the selection of a superintendent. And early last month, the board split along racial lines in a 5-4 vote to elect a white chairman.

“The system is so broken, it’s beyond repair,” Mr. Eames said. “I want to return to the mid-1990s, when common sense prevailed and professionalism prevailed.”

Since 1992, 107 cities and counties have opted to elect their school boards. None of them has gone back.

Mr. Eames and his wife, Mandy, have sent mass e-mails to parents and PTA members, approached civic leagues and knocked on doors, trying to gain support. The deadline is Wednesday.

About 95 petitions are circulating, and it is not clear how many signatures have been collected.

“Everybody right away agrees that something has to change,” said Sandy M. Burton, a parent of two elementary-school children, who has asked her friends and family to sign the petition. “People have questioned how reverting back to that is a good thing. But once it’s explained to them, it’s a good thing.”

Board members Byron P. “Pete” Kloeppel and James E. Bridgeford, who have been chosen by the City Council and elected by voters, said they have not decided whether they support the appointed-board movement.

But they suggested the old days were better.

“We had a majority of black school board members in 1994 and a white chairman and didn’t have any problems,” said Mr. Kloeppel, who is the chairman. “I think it’s too racially polarized now.”

Mr. Bridgeford said: “This is the worst I’ve seen the school board.”

Sheri H. Bailey, the board’s newest member, said term limits and reducing the size of the board from nine members might be better solutions.

“I understand the frustration, and I can understand the citizens wanting something to change,” Ms. Bailey said. “There’s an election coming in ‘06. They should encourage folks who represent their needs to run.”

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