There is about to be a major shift in the makeup of Charlottesville’s School Board.
Four of the board’s seven seats are up for election this fall, and three of the incumbent members have decided they will not run again. It’s unclear if the fourth incumbent member, Jennifer McKeever, will seek reelection. McKeever did not respond to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s request for comment, and as of Thursday she had not filed the necessary paperwork with the Voter Registration Office to run, said Joshua Jenkins, chief deputy registrar. She has until Tuesday to do so.
That means it’s possible the School Board will have four new faces this fall. While it’s not often that the board welcomes so many new members at one time, even with four open seats, it does happen. The last time the School Board had four new members was in 2005.
But there is regular turnover on the board, said Jenkins. And, members tend to hold their positions for years. McKeever and exiting board member Sherry Kraft served for more than eight years, exiting member James Bryant served for five years and LaShundra Bryson Morsberger for four years.
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This is Superintendent Royal Gurley’s first election cycle. He said the four seats up for election is not something he is particularly worried about. He looks forward to having new voices to offer input.
“It’ll be four new people coming on with four new ideas,” said Superintendent Royal Gurley. “I’m sure anyone whose running is qualified.”
But who those people will be is still a mystery. So far, only two people — Chris Meyer and Amanda Burns — have completed the necessary paperwork to run. Five additional people have started the process to become candidates, but had not completed it as of Thursday, said Jenkins.
Whomever takes the new board seats will be making a lot of important decisions in the coming years.
“It is a policy-making role, not a management one,” said Kraft. “It’s hard work but it’s worth it.”
Just in the last two years, the Charlottesville School Board secured $90 million to rebuild Buford Middle School. It also rezoned the historically redlined and still predominantly Black neighborhood of Westhaven so that the students there will attend the nearby Trailblazer (formerly Venable) Elementary School rather than be bussed across town to Burnely-Moran. It was among the first in the state to approve a collective bargaining agreement with school workers and took over full ownership of the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center.
Kraft said the board has also worked to fix inequities within the schools’ gifted program and improve mental health services for students.
The future School Board will immediately face more issues. There remains a major school bus driver shortage that has kept thousands of students from getting a bus to school. The board must also finalize some “foundational decisions” for how it will run CATEC by next summer. Standardized testing also remains an issue, with Charlottesville schools testing below the state average in some subjects, particularly its students of color.
Both Kraft and Morsberger emphasized the need for new members to tackle equity issues within the school system. Students of color and economically disadvantaged students in Charlottesville are less likely to enroll in Advanced Placement courses or be in the school’s gifted program, according to the two members. It’s a problem the School Board has been discussing for years.
“We still have issues with achievement with students of color, there was more learning loss among disadvantaged students. We need to continue to work on that and bringing those kids farther along,” said Kraft.
Kraft said she hopes the new board members will be “younger.” Four of the board’s seven members are over 50, two are over 70. Kraft, the board’s oldest member, is 75.
The four-term member hopes having a younger makeup will challenge the rest of the board and the community, which could be beneficial, she said.
That said, new members should be prepared for the dedicated time commitment, but should not be afraid to only take on what they can, said Bryson Morsberger. And it can be difficult to balance, especially for people with full time employment or other responsibilities.
Bryson Morseberger, an human resources specialist with the National Park Service, limited her commitment by not joining school committees. Still, the two-three hours a week she spent on Board business became a lot to balance with working a separate full-time job and being a mother. During the earlier stages of the pandemic, board members were at meetings multiple times a week, said Bryson Morsberger,
On top of the monthly meetings, School Board members are assigned to committees each year. Some members can be in one to seven committees, and the time commitment for those groups can range.
Within the last year, the School Board pivoted to aiding in student discipline assessments for kids looking at out-of-school suspensions or expulsions in addition to their other obligations. The meetings would last an hour or so, but the process still left some members burnt out.
“There were times where we would do a discipline hearing and I would just go home and pass out,” said Bryson Morsberger. “It was taxing.”
She continued, “In the beginning of my term, I felt like I could balance it all, but after the pandemic, I’m feeling burnt out.”
So, she encourages new board members to only take on what they’re able to.
“Show up the way you can, even if it doesn’t fit perfectly,” said Bryson Morsberger.
Kraft’s only concern is new board members may lack institutional knowledge, which would make deciding on long term issues more difficult, she said.
“There could be some people who don’t know the history of how we got to this point,” said Kraft
Board members serve a two-year term, which means three or more seats are up for election every two years. Board Members Lisa Larson-Torres, Dom Morse and Emily Dooley will remain on the board during the election.
In order to run, prospective candidates must get 125 signatures from Charlottesville citizens.
The deadline for candidate applications is June 20. Those interested in petitioning can visit the State Board of Elections website for more information. The Charlottesville registrar can be contacted at 434-970-3250 or vote [at] charlottesville.org.
Election day is Nov. 7.