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Hanover grassroots group achieves ballot referendum

Hanover School Board Member Coleman shakes hands with community members
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Greg Coleman chats with attendee before a Hanover County Public School Board meeting on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 in Ashland, Virginia.

On Election Day, Hanover voters will decide if school board members should be elected, not appointed.

A majority of the 132 localities in Virginia elect their school boards. Hanover County's among the few appointed by elected governing officials — in this case, the board of supervisors.

Over the past 18 months, a nonpartisan group of volunteers in Hanover have advocated change by petitioning for a voter referendum that could shift how school board members are selected in the county.

The Hanover Citizens for an Elected School Board needed to collect eligible voters’ signatures in hopes of reaching the required 10% needed to get a referendum on the ballot, according to state code.

As of July 17 the group finally met its goal, according to a court order VPM News obtained from the Hanover Circuit Court. An Election Day referendum will be added to the ballot.

Tim McDermott, a volunteer with the coalition of parents and concerned citizens, told VPM News he couldn’t be prouder of what they all achieved after falling short of the necessary signatures last year.

“Going through the process this year with roughly the same group of people, we knew what worked well for us last time,” McDermott said. “This time, we really focused on working hard right out of the gate.”

McDermott went on to say that from November 2022 to July, more than 90 volunteers worked at events throughout the county to collect signatures and talk to residents and voters about why they’re advocating for an elected school board.

The commonwealth has a long, sordid history with appointed school boards, a system that stems from Jim Crow–era tactics during the 1900s, according to a 2009 statement penned by the ACLU of Virginia. It wasn’t until 1947 that the General Assembly passed a law permitting Arlington County to elect its school board.

But that decision was later undercut by backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The General Assembly initially repealed the law allowing elected school boards during the mid-1950s, following the Arlington School Board’s decision to integrate some schools.

However, after multiple legal battles, the General Assembly finally passed legislation in 1992 to permit local referendums asking voters if they’d prefer to elect their school board representatives — or keep them as appointed positions by other elected officials.

Kim Catley, a volunteer from the Mechanicville District and mother of two, told VPM News she was unaware of why Hanover County had stuck with an appointed board for so long until becoming more involved with the grassroots effort.

“Really, I didn’t get involved until the board started targeting transgender and library related policies. I think that just led me to start to wonder a little bit about the school board,” Catley said. “That's when I found out about the elected versus appointed structure, then I got involved earlier this year as a petition collector.”

In fact, both McDermott and Catley agree that it’s because of the school board’s stance on the civil rights of transgender students and book bans drew more and more people to their cause. McDermott said the group gained around 50% of the signatures needed within the last three months.

In total, the group collected over 12,000 signatures. Around 9,000 were certified by the county’s registrar — exceeding the threshold to push the ballot referendum.

“I’d say that some of those issues definitely impacted people coming forward,” McDermott said. “Signatures started coming in around probably the same time that the school board made the decision to ban the books in the public school libraries.”

Louise Evans, a volunteer from the Cold Harbor District, said she witnessed a noticeable shift as well as petitioners arriving at events like Ashland’s Train Day and Hanover Night at the Diamond baseball stadium in Richmond.

Evans said there are also groups interested in maintaining the appointee system. The Hanover County Republican Committee and Together Hanover Project have made their status quo stance clear.

“The Democrats & other very progressive liberal organizations are pushing to get rid of our Appointed School Boards and replace it with Elected School Boards,” HCRC Chairperson Jack Dyer wrote in a statement. “Just the mere fact that this is another Democrat progressive initiative should give you huge concern & pause.”

VPM News contacted Hanover County Public Schools for comment regarding the ballot referendum. A spokesperson said it’d be inappropriate to comment on the matter since county supervisors oversee the process.

Although Evans told VPM News she sees the school board’s selection as a nonpartisan issue, she hopes to bring as many people to the table as possible.

“It’s just very sad, because it's supposed to be a nonpartisan thing, but they've made it a partisan issue,” Evans said. “I believe very, very strongly in both an elected government for the school board and the board of supervisors. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting the voters decide who governs them.”

Moving forward, Evans said the goal is to shift the organization to inform, educate and ask the Hanover voters to vote yes for the referendum come November. She said she hopes the enthusiasm from the last two months will continue — as early voting opens in September.

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.