WINCHESTER — Two members of City Council have expressed interest in transitioning from an appointed School Board to one that is elected.
Their comments came on Tuesday night after Winchester School Board Chairwoman Allyson Pate presented City Council with the board’s request to reduce its size from nine to seven appointed members.
“The overwhelming majority of [school] boards [in Virginia] are elected,” Councilor Corey Sullivan said. “If we’re going to make a change, let’s make a change.”
“I’m inquisitive about seeing elected [board members] also,” Councilor Les Veach said.
Bryan L. Nuri of Stephens City, a candidate for the Opequon District seat on the Frederick County School Board, attended Tuesday’s meeting with copies of a petition calling for a voter referendum on an elected city School Board. The petition started circulating in April and needs the signatures of 1,700 registered Winchester voters by next month to get the referendum on the ballot for the Nov. 5 general election.
If the referendum gets on the ballot and is approved by city voters, the School Board would change from one that is appointed by City Council to one that is elected by the public.
The switch to an elected board could also be made by order of City Council, but Sullivan said a voter referendum would make an act of council unnecessary.
“This could change without us doing anything,” he said.
Winchester Vice Mayor John Hill said he opposes an elected School Board, and Councilor Bill Wiley said he wants to continue the appointment process to ensure the best people possible are selected to serve.
Pate told council that two board members — herself and Richard Bell, both of whom have represented Ward 1 since 2012 — will complete their second and final terms next year, at which time the School Board would like to continue with just seven members.
“What you find is with smaller groups, there is more dialogue,” Pate said.
The School Board is proposing that all seven members serve at-large, with no more than three members from any single ward. Terms are four years, and board members are not paid.
Reducing the board’s size would require a change to the City Charter that must be approved by both council and the Virginia General Assembly.
“I don’t agree with seven members on the board,” Councilor John Willingham said. “I think it should be five.”
Willingham said his preference for a smaller governing board also applies to Winchester’s nine-member City Council, which he believes is too large for a city of about 28,000 residents.
“At some point, I’m going to initiate a request to review our board structure,” Willingham told his fellow council members.
Hill said he opposed a 2015 request to reduce the School Board’s size over concerns about equal representation for all of Winchester, but he’s willing to do what the citizens want.
“I want to hear more from my constituents in regard to how they feel about this,” Hill said.
“I would likely support seven elected [School Board members],” Sullivan said. “I don’t think I can support seven appointed.”
Mayor and council President David Smith reminded councilors that the issue at hand was not whether the School Board should be elected or appointed, but how many members it should include.
“I am in support of reducing the School Board,” Smith said.
Council voted 5-3 to forward the board’s request to its next business meeting on June 25. Sullivan, Veach and Hill opposed the measure, and Councilor Judy McKiernan abstained because she is an employee of Winchester Public Schools.
Attending Tuesday night’s City Council work session in Rouss City Hall were Mayor and council President David Smith, Vice Mayor John Hill, Vice President Evan Clark and councilors Kim Herbstritt, John Willingham, Les Veach, Bill Wiley, Judy McKiernan and Corey Sullivan.