Hanover school board members are appointed. The Virginia NAACP wants to change that.
In August, the Virginia state affiliate of the NAACP announced the “Why We Can’t Wait” campaign to push for all localities with appointed school boards to switch to an elected model.
It is a statewide initiative, said Robert Barnette, president of the Virginia NAACP. He said local NAACP chapters in areas with appointed school boards — like in Allegheny County — will survey residents there to see if they’re upset with the current system.
“How do we hold these school board representatives accountable when you can’t vote on their appointment?” Barnette said.
Barnette, who previously was the president of the Hanover County NAACP chapter, said he knows many Hanover residents who are not satisfied with the appointed school board process there.
He insists the appointed school board system is broken, which he said shouldn’t be surprising given its roots in the Jim Crow era, when Black Americans were purposefully kept out of positions of power in government, including on school boards.
“At the [state] constitutional convention in 1901 — which was devoted to codifying Jim Crow practices — Virginia's most prominent statesman amended the constitution to require literacy tests, poll taxes and rejected attempts to allow elected school boards in Virginia,” Barnette said.
Legal challenges to the appointed board system in the 1980s were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until 1992 that state lawmakers passed legislation allowing localities to hold a referendum asking voters if they would prefer an elected school board, making Virginia the last state in the country to allow elected school boards.
However, that authority was granted to some localities earlier upon their request — like Arlington County, which had an elected school board starting in 1947, according to Southern historian Jim Hershman.
Hershman said the push for an elected school board in Arlington was driven largely by an influx of people moving to Virginia from other states, after the expansion of federal agencies under the New Deal.
“A lot of these people were not Virginians. They were people from other parts of the country with college educations — places like Massachusetts or Ohio — places that had good public schools,” Hershman said. “Those people were not satisfied with the school board being appointed by a judge. They wanted to have a better system of public education, and so they lobbied right at the end of World War II. The demand for it had been building up for almost a decade, really.”
Technically, Hershman said, the system at the time involved a circuit court judge appointing a three-person board called the school trustee electoral board, which then appointed school board members. He said that system was put in place by then-Gov. Harry Byrd, a segregationist, in 1926 through changes to the state constitution.
“They were taking the school board about five steps away from the people,” Hershman said. “This is Harry Byrd’s idea of how democracy should be run.”
‘One of the first acts in Massive Resistance’
Arlington County, which Hershman said was regarded in Virginia “as a nest of liberals,” was successful in lobbying efforts to secure an elected school board.
Following Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Arlington’s school board came up with a plan to desegregate schools, starting with students in first grade.
According to Hershman, they decided, “We're going to completely combine all of the students who would go to the Black school and white school together. And then each year after that, that group of students will move up to the second grade, and they will be followed by another group. And so, in 12 years, the entire system would be desegregated.”
But Congress and Virginia lawmakers under the “Byrd machine” and the Massive Resistance plan “went ballistic,” Hershman said.
“Old Bill Tuck — a Congressman from southern Virginia — was quoted as saying, ‘If Arlington won’t go along, I say make ’em,’” Hershman said.
Hershman said the legislature immediately passed a bill to take away Arlington’s right to have an elected school board.
“That was the punishment,” Hershman said. “And I regard it as pretty much one of the first acts of what we call ‘Massive Resistance’ in Virginia.”
The push in Hanover County
In order to get an elected school board in Hanover County, Barnette said they first need about 9,000 residents to sign a petition.
Then, a petition with the circuit court would be filed to put the request on the ballot.
“That takes time,” Barnette said. “So, this will be the next voting cycle, which will be, I think, November 2023 for Hanover.”
He said other organizations have tried to get the petition on the ballot before, but didn’t secure enough signatures. He hopes this time will be different.
“We have tried many times in Hanover to offer qualified individuals who had education experience: principals, school administrators [on the school board] … . [A]nd all of them were turned down, basically for race,” Barnette said. “We are very cognizant of the fact that if you're not in the ‘old boys club,’ you won't get appointed.”
In an email statement responding to Barnette’s comments, Hanover Board of Supervisors chairperson Angela Kelly-Wiecek said “we are aware that several citizen groups are collecting signatures and working for an elected school board. We hold our residents’ desires in high regard, and we respect that process and its eventual outcome.”
Pat Hunter-Jordan, the current president of the Hanover County NAACP, also hopes the county can move to an elected school board model. The group published an open letter to the school board and board of supervisors in July detailing concerns about two specific school board members: John Redd and John Axselle.
In response to the letter, Redd called Hunter-Jordan “an angry African American lady,” a racial stereotype that some trace back to chattel slavery in the U.S.
Last month, the county board of supervisors discussed Axselle’s potential ouster following accusations that he violated federal student privacy law. Hunter-Jordan told VPM News she hopes he is removed, in part because of multiple issues with him, including his comments during a private meeting last year.
“During that meeting, he went on to call us ‘colored people,’ instead of Black people,” Hunter-Jordan said. “That’s the way he talked to us. And when we tried to say that isn’t appropriate, all he wanted to tell us was how he grew up and how they were good friends with all the little ‘colored’ boys and girls he played with.”
Cassandra Powell — the parent of a student in Hanover County Public Schools who was also present for the meeting — confirmed the comments to VPM News.
Powell said Axselle also told them that he just didn’t understand why they were asking for more representation in the classroom.
"We were saying to him that we wanted more teachers of color in our classrooms, because it mattered to children,” Hunter-Jordan said. “And he said that it does not matter. As long as a teacher is a good teacher, it should not matter what color they are."
Additionally, Powell said Axselle seemed unmoved when she mentioned that her mother grew up attending the former, then-segregated John Gandy High School, and that even though she lived five minutes away from school, her bus ride was more than an hour long because the bus for Black students went to Beaverdam first. Meanwhile, the bus for white students passed by her house and would’ve gotten her to school much faster.
“He just goes on and starts talking about himself,” Powell said, telling her that he lived across the street from that school, which is now the school board building.
Axselle didn’t respond to a request for comment from VPM News.
Axselle has made other comments in public meetings that community members have called insensitive, including his remarks about “A Place Inside of Me,” a book that came before the board for a vote in June after a challenge to have it removed from district shelves.
“I don't know how many parents — any parents, regardless of their color — who have been killed by police within Hanover County. How many children that walk in our doors have that experience? I don't think any of them do,” Axselle said during the June meeting. “So, why am I going to ask them to read a book — or make a book available to them — so they can experience it? I don't think that's a very positive thing to experience.”
Axselle was appointed to the school board more than two decades ago, which Barnette said is another problem with the appointed school board system: the fact that there are no term limits for board members.
“You shouldn’t stay on there for 27 years,” Barnette said. “Even the president of the United States can’t stay that long.”