Each year, measures are introduced in the General Assembly that would permit some form of election of local school boards in Virginia. Each year, the assembly has rejected those measures. This reluctance to approve elected school boards has its origins in the basic concepts that underlie our system of government.
In 1776, the American people overthrew British rule, declaring "no taxation without representation." It has always been fundamental to our representative democracy that each citizen should have the right to influence the taxes that he or she must pay, by electing those who impose such taxes. The power of the purse has always been linked to responsible and responsive government. In The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton pointed out the clear relationship between the responsible exercise of taxing powers and the election of political representatives.
"There is no part of the administration of government that requires extensive information and a thorough knowledge of the principles of political economy so much as the business of taxation. The man who understands those principles best will be least likely to resort to oppressive expedience, or to sacrifice any particular class of citizens to the procurement of revenue.... There can be no doubt that in order to (have) a judicious exercise of the power of taxation, it is necessary that the person in whose hand it is should be acquainted with the general genius, habits, and modes of thinking of the people at large and with the resources of the country."
Thus the power of taxation is best exercised by those who are responsible to all citizens, who recognize all of the needs of the community and who are in a position to make judgments among those names.
In Virginia, public schools are the major local cost. It is not unusual for the school budget to amount to as much as one half of the budget of a locality. Thus local tax rates are often influenced most greatly by the action of school boards. Under the present Virginia law, the members of those boards are responsible to the local government for their appointment. This provides the local government with the opportunity to review the philosophy and fiscal policies of school board members prior to their appointment and ensures that the local government will retain reasonable input into the actions of the school board thereafter.
Those who advocate the election of school boards believe that elected boards will be more responsive to the individual concerns of citizens. However, such an election also eliminates the only relationship between the local governing body and the school board. It deprives the localities of their only means to control the agency that has the greatest impact upon local taxes.
The most important action that an elected official takes is the judicious allocation of scarce local resources to meet many legitimate needs. To act properly requires a thorough knowledge of the entire community, not just one facet of local government. An elected school board, independent of the taxing power vested in the local governing body, is answerable to a substantially different constituency from that which elects the local governing body.
The limitation of the scope of a school board's duties also limits the breadth of its vision in examining the problems that a county or city may confront. A politically independent school board is never required to confront the necessary compromises between competing needs, which are the essence of the budget process. As a result, the local governing body may well find its ability to achieve such compromises substantially impaired through the action of an elected school board that can only lead to poor government or a confrontation between two independent political entities. Neither result is sound public policy.
The function of local school boards is to establish school policy and operate school systems. The men and women who have agreed to serve as members of local school boards have performed these duties well. It is unlikely that those elected as school board members would bring greater dedication or expertise to that service than those who have served as appointed school board members.
However, it is likely that those elected as school board members will bring certain political priorities with them that must eventually lead to conflict between those elected to serve the schools and those elected to serve the people. It has been the consistent opinion of a majority of those in the General Assembly that this issue must be resolved in favor of the people.