Saving Schools: Research Backs Ward-Based Idea

school recessI just read a few articles by researchers who have studied at-large vs. ward-based elections across the country, and who have published their findings in scholarly journals of political science. Those research results in favor of ward-based voting mean a lot to me. If the research showed that at-large voting systems produced better results than ward-based, I would not be advocating a change to ward-based.

I don’t think many other voters here in Jacksonville will be influenced by those articles. That’s not enough for me, either. What matters even more is what has happened and is happening in District 117.

Jacksonville has had a long history of neighborhood schools. Many of the school buildings were noteworthy for their architecture. Three of them have been abandoned by the School Board over the past few years. Because of at-large voting, there was nobody on the School Board from those parts of our community.

Those buildings stand in sections of town that have suffered from historical neglect. The historical problems of neighborhoods near the center of Jacksonville are not the School Board’s fault. But now our city government and we taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to revive the downtown. Meanwhile the School Board has offered no plans for these shells, which could soon become eyesores.

Our schools are underfunded. The state is cutting educational funds and will keep cutting them. If we want good schools, we will need to spend more of our own money. The School Board failed to raise that money with a 1 cent sales tax last year, in a vote lost nearly 2 to 1. Their public relations were unsuccessful, perhaps because their plans were vague and unconvincing. The people of Morgan County are not against education, but the School Board failed to convince voters that it could spend that money wisely.

District 117 has a vacuum in leadership. We have had four different superintendents or interim superintendents in less than two years. The School Board has failed to find a strong leader for the most important position in District 117.

One of the parts of our community not represented on the School Board is also not present in the schools: while 17 percent of our students are non-white, the teaching staff in District 117 is 99.2 percent white. There is one black member of the teaching staff out of 238. This information comes from the school district’s own report card on its website. But I have heard no plans to do anything about that.

The School Board has not helped to get the population of Jacksonville engaged in education. That engagement is the responsibility of all adults in the community, not only parents of school children. The School Board has not found a way to deal with the problem of underengagement in our schools. Its discouragement of discussion at public meetings is an obstacle to community involvement.

Gary Scott, who has spoken at two events I have attended, praised the enthusiasm that is suddenly apparent in Jacksonville; at a rally to oppose ward-based voting, he said, “It’s the first time we’ve talked about education in this town for years.” Former superintendent Bob Crowe said the bond of trust between community and School Board has been broken. And Scott and Crowe are supporters of keeping voting for the School Board just as it is.

The message from the proponents of at-large voting, at all the forums I have attended, is that the School Board has failed, but let’s do nothing. Let’s not change the voting system. And let’s not talk about anything else.

From the opponents of change all we hear is to maintain the status quo.

But we can do better. To do that we need a better School Board, one which has a positive plan for our neighborhood schools, one which inspires parental and community involvement, one which figures out how to put a diverse group of teachers in front of our diverse students, one which offers good reasons to spend more of our money on education and good plans for how they will create better results for our students.

How do we get a better School Board? Those articles I read all agreed that ward-based voting provides better representation of minority voters, which eventually leads to a more diverse teaching staff, which leads to better academic performance by students.

The majority of the School Board has failed to engage with our local discussions about how to vote. Instead they have put obstacles in the way of public discussion: The board refused to put this topic on its agenda.

steve hochstadtThat’s not the way to help this community make an important decision. It’s the way to block change, to dampen enthusiasm, to stay in office, and to keep doing the same things which have brought us here.

A vote to maintain the at-large system is a vote to accept these failures.

Vote Yes in April, and then keep voting with your feet and bodies and checkbooks for a better education for Jacksonville’s kids.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Image: Big Stock Photo

Published by the LA Progressive on March 26, 2013
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."

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