WINCHESTER — A petition signed by 2,258 people who want a voter referendum on an elected city School Board was turned in late Monday afternoon to the Winchester Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.
Dani Bostick of Winchester, one of the organizers of the petition drive, said 10% of the people who were registered to vote in the city on Jan. 1 had to sign the petition in order to put the referendum on the ballot for the Nov. 5 general election. That equates to 1,667 signatures.
Bostick said it’s likely some of the signatures turned in Monday won’t count because the people who signed aren’t registered to vote in the city or have moved without updating their registration. However, she said more than 20% of the names attached to the petition could be tossed and there would still be enough signatures to get the referendum.
Bostick and Ward 3 resident Roya Milotte, who launched the petition drive on April 5 and paid $225 of her own money to file paperwork with the court, collected more than 1,000 signatures apiece over the past three months.
Milotte said Monday she started the petition after hearing members of City Council, which appoints School Board members, say they were unable to fill a vacant board seat in her ward because no citizens applied to serve. However, she and fellow Ward 3 resident Elyus Wallace interviewed with council’s selection committee last year, she said. Wallace was rejected by the committee and Milotte never heard back from anyone.
On June 25, council apparently changed its mind and appointed Wallace to the Ward 3 seat. Milotte suspects the turnaround may have had something to do with her referendum petition.
“It’s great what happens once the wheel gets squeaky enough that everybody’s paying attention,” she said. “Elyus has always been good enough, but why it took me being so loud for them [City Council] to realize that shows the process is broken.”
“A lot of people view City Council as a barrier or gatekeeper to the process,” Bostick said.
Milotte said she was also compelled to act after hearing how the school system handled the case of Bostick’s teenage daughter, who was sexually assaulted by a fellow student in a city park two years ago. Bostick accused Winchester Public Schools and the School Board of violating federal Title IX regulations by not adequately shielding her daughter from her attacker when they were both attending Handley High School.
“The way that was handled was a tragedy,” Milotte said. “It never should have happened to a student, a child, anybody.”
“I’m hopeful that with an elected School Board there will be more independence and accountability and transparency than there is right now,” Bostick said.
Winchester Circuit Court Clerk Terry Whittle said this was the first public petition for a voter referendum that he had received during his 33 years with the office.
The signatures will now go to Winchester Voter Registrar Elizabeth Martin, who has 30 days to check the validity of each name.
If the required minimum number of signatures is verified, the referendum question will be publicly advertised at least three weeks before it appears on the Nov. 5 ballot.
If a referendum is held and subsequently approved by voters, the first election for Winchester School Board seats would be in November 2020.
Bryan Nuri, a candidate for the Frederick County School Board who supported the petition drive, said seats would come up for election as the terms of appointed members expire. Phasing in an all-elected board would take several years.
The 2,258 people who signed the petition will not necessarily vote in favor of the referendum. Regardless, Milotte and Bostick are optimistic.
“If those that we have talked to show up to vote, it will pass,” Milotte said.
“I had people tell me they’ve been waiting decades for this,” Bostick added. “The response was overwhelming.”