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The long and drawn out saga surrounding how members of the North Adams school board are seated may finally be over. Board members voted on Tuesday evening to accept a citizens' petition that calls for board members to be elected, effectively replacing the school district's 40-year method of filling board seats by appointment.
Barring an 11th-hour remonstrance from citizens who prefer to retain the appointment method of filling seats, board members will be elected, on a staggered basis, beginning in 2012.
For more than 14 months, the ad hoc Our Children Our Future committee had attempted to persuade board members to themselves initiate the process of transforming the board from an appointed to an elected body. When the board failed to act, the committee circulated a petition throughout the community in an attempt to force the change.
Last month that petition, bearing the names of 1,893 registered voters in the school district, was submitted to the Adams County clerk of courts. The petition — which barely met the threshold of the required 20 percent of the voting population in the district — was certified by the clerk and forwarded to the board of education.
The board's options at that point were few: reject the proposal calling for an elected school board and allow voters of the school district to decide the issue at the polls; approve the plan and allow it to become enacted; or formulate and submit its own written plan, which would then also be subjected to voters.
In the end, following a brief discussion, school board members on Tuesday voted 4-1 to accept the Our Children Our Future recommendations. Members Michelle Stimpson, Tim Ehlerding, Ben Faurote and Deb Bergman voted in favor of the proposal. Only Juan Gutierrez was opposed.
"I very much support the concept" of an elected board, said Ehlerding. He expressed preference for a five-member board as opposed to the seven-member panel called for in the petition, but said that was "not a deal-breaker."
"I like the idea of someone telling me every four years how I'm doing. I like the idea of being held accountable," Ehlerding said.
But Gutierrez, as he has throughout discussions on the subject of an elected board, continued to call for the public to decide the issue at the ballot box.
"I know we have 20 percent of the signatures (of registered school district voters) on the petition, but I'd like the entire community to vote,"Gutierrez said. "I'd like 50 percent plus one of the voters to decide this, not 20 percent."
But board members Bergman and Faurote said those in the community who oppose the elected board concept still have the means to stop it, by collecting 500 signatures from registered voters.
"These people (the Our Children Our Future committee) have sought out public comment. People who don't want it still have that opportunity," said Bergman.
"Five hundred signatures is not that great of a hurdle, compared to what this group went through," added Faurote.
Currently, North Adams Community Schools is one of only 15 school corporations in the state to have an appointed school board.
The Our Children Our Future petition called for an elected, seven-member, non-partisan board. The North Adams school district, for purposes of board representation, will be divided into two districts: District One, consisting of the municipal boundaries of Decatur, and District Two, consisting of the remainder of the school corporation in Union, Root, Preble and northern Washington townships.
Under the proposal, three board members are to be elected from each of the two districts, with a seventh, at-large member eligible to reside anywhere in the school district.
Candidates will be required to be 18 years of age or older and must have resided in the school district for at least one year.
The petition spells out a staggered election formula during a prolonged transition period that would seat the first elected board member in 2013.
Board attorney Scott Ainsworth said the board's vote on Tuesday starts a 120-day window during which any community members may circulate a petition and gather at least 500 names to halt the change.
At the conclusion of Tuesday's meeting, Our Children Our Future committee spokesman Charlie Brune addressed the board.
"Thank you for approving our petition plan. We feel you have fulfilled the public's wishes," Brune said.