RICHMOND, FEB. 12 -- Virginia will retain its status as the only state in the nation barring popular election of school boards after a vote today by a state Senate panel.
After winning a surprise victory in the House of Delegates earlier this session, the bill to allow a limited experiment in direct election for some Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads school districts ran into a stone wall of Old Dominion traditionalism in the Senate's Privileges and Elections Committee, which killed the proposal on an 11 to 3 vote.
Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), a leading opponent, quoted Thomas Jefferson on the philosophy of democracy before rejecting the notion that what is good enough for other states is good enough for Virginia.
"Virginia is the only state that does a lot of things, and we do them well," Andrews said.
In most Virginia localities, school boards are appointed by elected officials on county boards of supervisors or city councils.
Andrews and other critics said it makes no sense to have elected school boards if they do not have independent power to raise taxes and appropriate money. Such a change -- which has minimal support in the legislature and was not provided for in today's bill -- would require a constitutional amendment.
The bill sponsored by Del. David G. Brickley (D-Woodbridge), who said he came closer to success this year than any time in the 15 years he has been pushing elected boards, would have allowed voters in Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties, among other places, to petition for referendums on the question in 1992. If the referendums passed, the first elections of school board members would take place in 1994.
Brickley said there is "no question" his bill would have passed the Senate and been passed into law if it had cleared the committee. And he vowed to come back again next year, when Northern Virginia and other suburban localities -- where elected school boards have their greatest support -- have more clout in the legislature because of the decennial redistricting that will take place this spring.
"I think you can safely say that Virginia will have elected school boards in the 1990s," Brickley said.
Historically, Virginia's appointed school boards served to keep black residents and Republicans out of school policy. An oft-repeated contention at today's hearing, though, was that appointed school boards are more racially diverse than the elected bodies that appoint them.
That argument didn't wash with Elizabeth Campbell, an 88-year-old Arlington resident who served on the School Board there during the eight years when the legislature allowed Arlington to elect its members before rescinding the privilege in 1956 when the board agreed to desegregate its schools.
"It is a wonderful thing to know that you have listened to the people on the one thing that is most important to them -- and that is their children," Campbell said. "In an era when we are urging democracy on the world, it is hard for me to understand how our own legislature can deny this fundamental right of democracy now practiced in 49 of 50 states to citizens of the commonwealth."
Two bills that could lead to the construction and operation of prisons by private companies passed the Senate today and were sent to Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
One would allow the Board of Corrections to contract for a medium-security prison for women and a minimum-security pre-release facility for men, and the other would allow the Board of Youth and Family Services to contract for local or regional juvenile detention centers.
The Senate rejected a third, House-passed measure that would have authorized two pilot proposals for privately built and run local or regional jails.
Several legislators have criticized state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Goldman for serving as a paid lobbyist for the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest of the 14 firms that operate private prisons in the nation.
Staff writer Donald P. Baker contributed to this report.