Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Seeking True Representation

This may be the first time you hear about the latest news in Jacksonville’s electoral politics. It’s Sunday as I write this, and I haven’t seen any reports yet about the public meeting on Friday organized by our local citizens to promote ward-based voting for the Jacksonville School Board. I attended because I support this proposal enthusiastically.

The issue is simple. All members of the School Board are currently elected at large. Every winner must get a majority of votes coming from the whole city, including South Jacksonville and Murrayville. That means an expensive media campaign, rather than a door-to-door campaign. The result is that the northeastern part of Jacksonville has rarely been represented on the Board, because few people who live there could afford such a campaign. Board members, in the past and now, overwhelmingly come from the wealthier parts of town. When the Board voted to close the Franklin Elementary School, nobody represented the part of town served by that school. The Board recently decided to eliminate 5th grade band except in the Eisenhower Elementary School.

Ward-based elections for School Board members would insure that each part of the city is represented. Campaigns in single wards are much cheaper to run, and elections would be determined by candidates who know each ward. School Board decisions would benefit from the input of members who represent every part of the city, not just the better-off sections.

Make no mistake, this is a racial issue. Local leaders of the NAACP, whose activities rarely make the local news, have been supportive from the beginning of this campaign. The two African American women who gave enthusiastic, even inspiring keynotes, Doris Turner from Springfield and Jeanette Norman from Decatur, described how at-large systems disadvantage African Americans, other minorities, and anyone who is poor.

Turner, who serves on the Springfield city council, explained that no African Americans served on the city council until elections shifted from at-large to ward-based. Suddenly Springfield’s economic, ethnic and geographical diversity was better represented. More parents began to participate in the education of their children. a better voting system led to broader public engagement in the local schools.

Our federal elections show exactly how having bigger districts means lower minority representation. In the 112th Congress, which just ended, there were 2 Hispanic Senators, 2 Asian Senators, and no African American Senators, exactly 4%, elected at-large in every state. The House of Representatives, whose districts within a state are just like wards in a city, included 44 African Americans, 25 Hispanics, 7 Asians, and one Native American, 18% of the total.

Higher costs of running in larger districts mean that personal wealth is more important in at-large elections. There are only 33 Senators who claimed to be worth less than $1 million (one-third of the total), while 250 House members (58% of the total) managed to win election without being millionaires.

Here is something about this campaign that is unusual. It is the furthest thing from partisan. Friday’s meeting brought together your conservative and liberal neighbors, including political activists, because of the wide agreement that ward-based voting is the superior method for our town. I asked Richard Brahler, with whom I disagree on many issues, why he was supporting ward-based voting. He asked me, “Aren’t we all for the same thing? The best education for our children?” What is there to disagree about?

He was under no illusion that electing one School Committee member in each city ward, beginning in 2015, would revolutionize our schools. Emily Ralph, the political inspiration of this campaign, has always been clear that giving people better representation would not create excellent schools overnight. It is one step toward bringing the whole community into the schools and having the school system’s managers represent the whole community.

But it’s a big step. The campaign is already uniting disparate parts of Jacksonville behind the desire for fuller representation, for more fairness, for more community involvement in the schools. Let’s keep going.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 19, 2013

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