RICHMOND, JAN. 16 -- A proposal for popular election of school boards, still a novel notion in Virginia even though they are elected in every other state, faces its best chance before the General Assembly in years after a surprise committee vote today.
After pigeonholing the proposal for 15 years, the House Privileges and Elections Committee approved on an 11 to 8 vote today a bill that would give voters in four localities -- including Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties -- the right to decide whether to elect school board members directly instead of allowing county boards to appoint them.
"I think the chances are better now than they've ever been," said a jubilant Del. David G. Brickley (D-Woodbridge), who has pushed the legislation for years.
Never better, though, does not mean the prospects are especially good. Brickley's proposal now goes to the House floor, where chances of passage are helped by the fact that 46 of 100 members have cosponsored the bill, despite the opposition of such powers as Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry).
In the Senate, Brickley acknowledged, elected school boards face an uphill fight.
Brickley said he limited his proposal to four localities -- the fourth is Virginia Beach -- as a "political compromise" with those members who believe that elected school boards should be tried as an experiment but are not ready to implement them statewide.
The first local referendums on elected school boards would not take place until at least 1992, and the first election of members would happen no earlier than 1994.
"Poll after poll has overwhelmingly shown support at the citizen level for elected school boards," Brickley said.
James Murphy, a father with four children in Fairfax County schools, complained that school board members now "serve two masters," the politicians who appoint them and the parents who lobby them to affect school policy.
"We want to ensure that the constituency most affected by the board's decisions can talk directly to someone who is accountable to them," Murphy said.
Sen. Clive L. DuVal 2d (D-McLean), who supports elected school boards, said that many in his chamber oppose the idea on the grounds that it would cause conflict to elect school boards without also giving them the power to levy taxes, an idea nearly all legislators oppose.
Virginia gave Arlington the power to elect School Board members in 1947, but revoked it several years later when the board supported racial integration at a time when the General Assembly was dominated by segregationists. Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington) has been one of Brickley's key allies on the school board bill.
In other legislative action today, Sen. Thomas J. Michie Jr. (D-Charlottesville) introduced two proposals for tax increases that are expected to stir heated debate. Michie wants to implement a statewide tax of 20 cents on every pack of cigarettes and impose an "alternate minimum tax" that would limit the ability of the rich to avoid income taxes by taking deductions.
Michie said the cigarette tax would raise $66.5 million annually, and estimated that the alternate minimum tax would raise another $10 million.
Virginia already levies a 2.5 cent tax on cigarettes, and many local governments add a tax of their own. Michie's proposal would repeal the local taxes, but return part of the new state tax to local governments.
Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has said he is opposed to any tax increases. But Michie said: "Taxes are never popular. It's a question of doing our duty rather than jumping on a popular bandwagon."