Every Spring and Fall Americans collectively grumble when daylight savings upends our schedules, disrupts our sleep, and makes it hard on parents with young kids who like routine—as if their lives weren’t hard enough! Like clockwork, there are renewed calls to end the antiquated, agrarian practice before we all eventually adjust to the new times only to renew the same conversation six short months later.
Such is the conversation around staggered School Board terms in Alexandria. Every three years, we elect a new, nine-member School Board. Most of the time (i.e., 7 of the last 10 School Board terms since we started electing Board members in 1994), the Board turned over the majority of its members. Like clockwork, the conversation resurfaces to consider a change to the School Board election process in order to avoid more large turnovers in the future.
On January 4, 2022, the current Board was sworn into office. Six of us were new to the Board with Kelly Carmichael Booz having previously served in 2013-2015 and three members starting their second term in office. The six members who left the Board at the end of their 2019-2021 term, chose not to seek reelection, with most of these members having already served two terms in office. In B district, where we serve, all three members chose not to run for reelection after serving two, three-year terms.
Six months into our new term in office, the Superintendent announced his resignation. Along with the Superintendent departure, we saw significant staff turnover at top leadership positions with the biggest impact in our Teaching and Learning department - the core of what we do for students. This is a pattern we have seen play out many times over in Alexandria and suffice it to say that the disruptions caused by a constant churn of School Board members and senior leaders is not a net positive for our division. With each change comes a loss of institutional knowledge and inevitable shifts in direction often before previous initiatives have had time to play out.
When I first served on the Alexandria School Board in 2013, seven of the nine member body were brand new to the Board. The learning curve was steep, putting an extra burden on staff, and we immediately jumped into the budget process. I can recall a couple votes from my first year in office that I would have approached differently with the experience I now have or questions I would have asked to push for more information to make a better informed decision.
Eight months later, we parted ways with the then Superintendent and hired an interim Superintendent. The Superintendent transition created a ripple effect with leadership changes across the Board with key staff seeking employment elsewhere and a great loss of institutional knowledge. When I served from 2013-2015, we had three different Chief Operating Officers, for example, during a time where capacity challenges and years of deferred maintenance continued to put our facilities into a place of crisis that we are still digging out of today. - Kelly Carmichael Booz, School Board Member
What is the history of this issue?
Alexandria switched from appointed to elected School Boards in 1994, with all nine members serving three-year terms and all members up for election at the same time. Since 1994, we’ve had ten School Board elections. During these ten, three-year terms, we’ve had six Superintendents depart with our seventh Superintendent now serving. The Superintendent turnover rate doesn’t include data on the number of staff turnover that inevitably occurs with leadership changes.
Given the upheaval caused by a change in leadership, the two Boards preceding our current Board both discussed staggered terms, with the Board that served from 2016-2018 passing a resolution encouraging the 2019-2021 Board to consider changes to both staggered terms and the size of the Board. While the previous Board considered staggered terms twice in 2019 (June 10, 2019 and November 14, 2019), they understandably tabled this discussion during the pandemic.
Additionally, it was previously believed that both the Council and School Board needed to change their election cycle in tandem, making the path to staggered terms even tougher by trying to get the two elected bodies to agree on a shift within the same three-year window before new members take office. What we learned last fall, thanks to guidance from Delegate Elizabeth Bennet-Parker and former Delegate Mark Levine, is that the School Board can change their election cycle separately from that of Council.
Will this diminish voter power?
A common argument against a switch to staggered terms is that the electorate then can’t vote to change the entire Board to signal a desired change in direction. This is a valid concern but largely doesn’t hold water given our current structure of district-based, non-partisan, and low-information elections where incumbents typically favor well.
Voters have more power to vote out a slate of candidates where they are all at-large (e.g., City Council), but the School Board districts automatically mean that voters are limited to selecting a minority number of candidates. Furthermore, the non-partisan nature makes it more difficult for voters to easily link candidates across districts to, say, elect members from one political party like what occurs for state and federal offices.
Finally, and perhaps most relevantly, there is substantial political science research demonstrating that School Board elections are “low information” meaning that voters typically cast their ballots knowing very little about candidates (e.g., here and here). In other words, they are swayed by name recognition, literature at the polls, a yard sign, or a mailer. This means that incumbents do quite well in our local School Board elections. Suffice it to say, we don’t have a history of "voting the bums out.” Rather, the large turnover of Board members occurs when incumbents don’t seek reelection, not because they are voted out of office.
So why now?
A number of constituents have asked us why we are considering staggered terms now.
The current Board sees the value of continuity in leadership as necessary for retaining staff and improving outcomes for children.
The change would not impact the next election cycle in 2024 and therefore have no bearing on the reelection of current members. However, there are processes that need to be put in place now to allow for the change to be carried out in future years. Not making this decision now would leave it to the next School Board to decide, thus further kicking the can down the road.
The current Board is carrying out the expressed preferences of the past two School Boards.
What options are we considering?
Considering the implications of staggered terms surfaced a series of other considerations with regard to term length, representation, alignment with other election cycles, and Board size. As part of the process, the Board considered a variety of models (see slides 12-18). Before moving ahead with any one model, the Board solicited community feedback on five key considerations:
Three vs. four-year terms
District vs. at-large representation
Staggered vs. concurrent terms
Alignment with state and federal election cycles
What happens next?
✔ Work Session – December 13, 2022
✔ Board Brief – February 3, 2023
✔ Work Session – February 9, 2023
✔ Staggered Terms Survey – April 2023
✔ Public Hearing – April 20, 2023
Work Session – May 18, 2023
Adopt Resolution – June 2023
City Council drafts charter revisions – Summer, 2023
Public Hearing on draft charter – Sept/Oct 2023
Draft legislation – October 2023
Insert draft legislation into School Board candidate packets – January 2024
State legislature approves charter revisions – 2024 Session
First Elections – November, 2024
So how do we make this happen? The short answer is that the process to get staggered terms has multiple steps and requires the coordination of state and local government between the School Board, City Council, and General Assembly. In other words, it requires a School Board willing to take up this issue within their three-year term, or really within their first or second year in office, a Council willing to seek an Alexandria city charter change within that same three-year window, and a General Assembly willing to vote to support a city charter change before a new election structure can take place.
Changing the election structure is not an easy straight-forward path especially within a three-year window, but there is a path.
We will soon receive the survey data from the community on the various options we’ve considered and we will hold a work session on May 18. Assuming we find consensus as a Board, we will pass a resolution asking the City Council for a city charter change supporting the new election model.
This fall, City Council will need to hold a public hearing on the city charter change. Assuming the charter change passes, we would work with our delegates to the General Assembly to file a bill in support of the charter change.
Assuming the General Assembly and Governor support the charter change, the bill will become law on July 1, 2024.
What does this mean for the School Board election in 2024?
No matter what, all nine current members will be up for election in 2024. Assuming the legislation passes, the staggered terms would begin after 2024. For example, let’s assume we move forward with a staggered model with A, B, and C districts serving three-year terms. The registrar would randomly draw straws to determine which district gets a one-year term, two-year term, and three-year term. Let’s say, for example, District A gets the short straw - they would run for office with everyone in 2024 and serve a one-year term and they would then need to run for office again in 2025. After their one-year term, they would then be on the staggered term cycle and they would not run for office again until 2028. If District B received the initial 2-year term, they would run with everyone in 2024 and then run for office again in 2026, then starting a three-year term.
In the above example, the election works as follows:
2024: All 9 members are up for election
2025: District A is up for office - 3 members
2026: District B is up for office - 3 members
2027: District C is up for office - 3 members
2028: The full cycle continues District B up for office
Even though the legislation would not be official until July 1, 2024, the registrar would know by the end of the General Assembly term if the city charter change was approved. The registrar has shared that they could let School Board candidates know about the election cycle change as they file for office. Unlike Council, the School Board does not have an election primary and must file to run for office by early June of the election year. By that date, we will know if all the steps mapped out above are in motion.
How do I share my thoughts on this issue?
If you’re still with us, thank you. We would love to hear from you on your thoughts on our election structure. Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.Or email the entire Board with your thoughts at Board@acps.k12.va.us.
Bonus content: What does ChatGPT say on the benefits of staggered terms?