- Chowan commissioners recently voted to overrule the Edenton-Chowan Board of Education and seek state legislation to shorten school board terms from six to four years.
- While shorter terms are ideal, there’s nothing right about Chowan commissioners’ heavy-handed decision to disregard a vote by the school board to keep their terms at six years.
As a general rule, the public is better served when voters get to choose their elected representatives more often rather than less often. Shorter terms for elected officials are preferable to longer terms. Consequently, four-year terms are better than six-year terms, and two-year terms are better still.
But that said, we can’t support a recent vote by Chowan County commissioners to seek state legislation shortening the terms of Edenton-Chowan Board of Education members from six to four years. Chowan commissioners voted 5-2 to seek the change, even though the Board of Education, whose members are elected independently of the commission board and who have sole purview over the county school district, reached the opposite decision — voting 6-1 in December to keep their terms at six years.
Attempting to explain their interference in what clearly is a school board matter, commissioners said they don’t believe six-year terms are in the best interest of public education. They also said Chowan citizens they had spoken with unanimously are opposed to longer terms for school board members.
Both assertions are questionable. First of all, how is that the county commissioners, who just a few years ago didn’t know that the county had managed to spend its entire $20 million nest egg and was then in the red to the tune of $2 million, know more about what’s in the best interest of public education than the county board elected for that purpose?
Secondly, it seems odd that public opinion would be so decidedly against six-year terms for school board members when no one has expressed that concern directly to the school board. John Guard, chairman of the Edenton-Chowan Board of Education, says no member of the public or the county commission ever appeared before the school board to complain about the six-year terms. Guard also noted that outside the school board’s own discussion of the issue late last year, there has been no public discourse at all about shorter terms for school board members.
So where was this public outcry for change? And why would commissioners take on it on themselves to overrule the school board?
There has been speculation that Chowan Republicans, who have expressed a desire to challenge every open seat in county government, are behind the effort. They’ve apparently had trouble fielding candidates for the nonpartisan school board because of the length of the term. Apparently six years is just too long of a commitment.
Finding enough candidates to have contested school board races in Chowan County is certainly an issue. During last fall’s election, for example, only one of three seats up for election was contested; two school board incumbents ran unopposed. Likewise in 2010, only one of two seats on the ballot was contested.
But changing the length of school board terms to accommodate people who otherwise won’t run seems unfair to those who have already shown a commitment to public service by running for the school board, getting elected and serving the longer term. Moreover, it seems shortsighted to presuppose that those who’ve already expressed an apprehensiveness about serving on the school board will suddenly become more committed if only they can be guaranteed they can get off the board sooner.
Changing school board terms this way also shows an arrogant disdain for the majority opinion of an equal branch of government in Chowan County and a reckless disregard for continued respectful relations with that body of government. By seeking the local legislation Chowan commissioners essentially are telling the school board that its views don’t matter, and that only it, the Board of Commissioners, knows what’s best for the county. On this matter of who knows best, we again would point out that it was the board of commissioners, not the school board, that was asleep at the switch when a former county manager not too long ago was spending the county off the rails.
State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, who apparently also opposes six-year terms for Edenton-Chowan school board members, said he plans to introduce a local bill making the change to four years. Steinburg said he doesn’t see “anything progressive” about six-year terms.
But we would point out that there’s nothing progressive, much less democratic, about the way this change is being proposed. In a progressive, democratic process, voters would express their dismay with six-year terms by voting against school board candidates who support them.
They would elect candidates opposed to six-year terms who then, following a majority vote, would ask Steinburg to sponsor legislation changing the terms to four years.
Here’s hoping Steinburg will respect that process and rethink his intention to introduce this legislation that has the potential to be very divisive back home.