Last Tuesday my side lost. The effort to change the at-large voting system for our School Board to a set of districts, or wards, only won 44% of the votes. The at-large system remains. So does the stark division of our city by wealth and power.
The voting results provide a clear picture of a divided city. East of Main Street lie Wards 1 and 2, the poorest sections of Jacksonville, several of whose neighborhood elementary schools have been closed. There the ward-based idea won by a 2 to 1 margin. In Ward 3 in the center of town, ward-based won more narrowly, with 54% of the votes. In Wards 4 and 5 on the west side, at-large won by a significant margin, 64% to 36%.
Turnout tipped the scales in Jacksonville. On the west side, turnout was 29%, while on the east side only 12%.
Jacksonville provided slightly more than half of the votes from District 117. In South Jacksonville, the ward-based system won a very narrow victory, 419 to 405. But in the rural villages which surround Jacksonville and are part of this very large district, at-large won 601 to 338. The suburbs, with only 23% of the total votes, provided more than half of the winning difference.
Another way to look at the voting is that the western area of Jacksonville, bounded on the east by Park and Caldwell Streets, on the north by West Walnut, and on the south by West Morton (precincts 11-16), was so strongly opposed to the ward-based idea that it provided nearly enough votes for the winning margin.
Rather than an evenly distributed vote across District 117, the question of how to elect our School Board divided the District into two opposing pieces. Wards 4 and 5 in Jacksonville plus the suburbs voted 64% to 36% in favor of at-large. The rest of Jacksonville plus South Jacksonville voted 56% to 44% for ward-based.
The voting for individual Board members was not so different across the District. Noel Beard, Debra Maul, and Cheryl Ballard took the top three spots in both west and east Jacksonville, South Jacksonville, and the suburbs. The unhappiness with the current School Board was strongest in eastern Jacksonville, where the two defeated incumbents came in behind everyone else in 7th and 8th place.
The presence of 8 candidates for 3 spots, plus the ballot question about voting systems, nearly doubled the turnout of 2011, but even so less than a quarter of registered voters showed up. The eastern half of Jacksonville, which has been virtually unrepresented on the School Board for the past 20 years, voted for a ward-based system to insure their representation. The western areas of Jacksonville and the suburbs, which have been greatly overrepresented, voted to maintain the present system. The School Board, now with 3 new members, continues this geographically unbalanced pattern.
The lack of representation of the poorer sections of Jacksonville on the School Board prompted the drive for a ward-based system. That was defeated, but the problem remains. David Richards, in a letter to the Journal-Courier on April 4, noted that the candidates for School Board decided to ignore Jacksonville’s northeastern precincts when they put up their campaign signs.
The larger issue at stake in School Board elections is the health of all of Jacksonville. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to spruce up the downtown will not succeed if a few blocks away school buildings lie vacant and neighborhoods deteriorate. We won’t be able to replace all the jobs that have been lost in recent years if our schools are failing.
The task facing the new School Board and the new superintendent is to integrate all of Jacksonville’s neighborhoods into the remaining schools. If a new school is built, people in the currently unrepresented neighborhoods must be engaged in the process. Whether we consider the business climate or housing prices, Jacksonville’s schools must be improved if our city is to prosper.
Jacksonville was once an educational leader, the Athens of the West. That reputation came from a willingness to create innovative institutions, like the Jacksonville Female Academy and the Medical School at Illinois College. Educational leaders, like Jonathan Turner and Newton Bateman, made education in Jacksonville nationally prominent.
The raw materials for a first-class educational system in Jacksonville are still here. A School Board which ignores half the city won’t be able to take advantage of them.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 16, 2013