The Alexandria School Board has been called many things in recent weeks: unresponsive, fiscally irresponsible, slow-footed.
Add to the list: divided.
Last week, for the first time in as long as any board member can recall, one member publicly chal-lenged another for the chairman's seat. The 7 to 2 vote July 9 left A. Melvin Miller in the driver's seat and former vice chairman Gene C. Lange sitting in the wings, for now.
Though most board members predict that any resulting wounds ultimately will heal, they concede that the selection process shed an unusually public light on private disaffections at work on the board. Any concerns were heightened by the fact that next year the governing body faces the task of redrawing school boundaries, which board members described as the toughest, most politically volatile task they have faced in years.
Miller shrugged off the vote, saying the divisions are superficial and "there's a basic tension on every board that determines public policy." He added that board members will inevitably be drawn together because "everyone on the board has the same basic goal in mind: that's to have a quality educational system."
Lange, who last year unseated Miller as vice chairman in a 5 to 4 vote, agreed that the board will move forward, if only out of necessity. He also noted that the board's history of seeking unanimity for public show was "a bunch of garbage" and that the board has cloaked its divisions from public scrutiny for too long.
Still, the vote for chairman, coming two weeks after the City Council publicly chastised the board for playing shell games with budget proposals and failing to adequately heed community complaints, has left a measure of confusion and ill will in its wake.
Lange and board member Timothy S. Elliott "have decided not to speak to me any more since I decided to vote for Mr. Miller," said Lynnwood G. Campbell, whom many board members identified as the swing vote in the shift to Miller.
Campbell, who last year chose Lange over Miller as vice chairman, said this week that Miller possesses the leadership and negotiating skills the board will need in trying times ahead.
Campbell said the turnaround was caused by his colleagues' voting patterns on other issues, but several board members concluded that the change resulted from Campbell's own political aspirations.
Campbell said he is "99 percent" sure he will take his second run at a City Council seat next spring. Board members said privately that he backed Miller to guard his support in the black community. Campbell and Miller, both Democrats, are black; Lange, a Republican, is white.
Board member Nelson E. Greene Jr., who failed in a bid for vice chairman this year, also switched from Lange to Miller. Campbell said Greene has volunteered to be his campaign treasurer in his City Council race.
Former chairman Judith S. Seltz, the last of the three board members to change allegiance in the selection, said, "This year my vote wouldn't have made a difference" in favor of Lange and felt Miller deserved a show of support.
Seltz also played down personality conflicts on the board, saying members generally agree on major goals, just differ "on how to get there, how fast to get there, or how much money you can spend to get there."
But Elliott openly criticized Campbell's shift, accusing his colleague of reneging on a longstanding promise to back Lange. "Lynnwood is using the board for his own political purposes," Elliott said.
Infighting is only one cause of the board's current public image dilemma.
The City Council reappointed Seltz, Lange and Greene last month to new three-year terms, but used the occasion to admonish the nine-member board for appearing unresponsive to the community and for routinely presenting annual budget proposals that are well in excess of city spending guidelines.
"We do deserve some of our PR problems and we're the only ones who can fix it," said board member Angie Godfrey, elected last week as vice chairman.
Tonight the board will consider a resolution presented by Miller to increase communications with elementary school staff and parents by assigning one board member to each school as an official liaison.
Still, several board members insist that the rap of unresponsiveness is more perception than reality, a fact that does not make the issue any less worrisome to the board. "I don't think we're an unresponsive board," said Seltz. "We've tried very hard to listen to employee groups, the community, the PTAs, and advisory committees -- and to City Council."
Greene added, "There are people who because you don't do what they suggest think you aren't listening to them."
Some board members also balk at the idea of presenting budget proposals they feel are more mindful of city spending limits than of student needs.
The City Council's "ceiling is not set on what the students need and that's what we're there for," said Greene. But Godfrey and others added that it's time the board became more sensitive to taxpayers' pocketbooks. "It's time we bite the bullet and listen to their guidelines," she said.