Do you know who your “zone representatives” are on your local school board?
I don’t, and it hardly matters. I’m 66 years old, semi-retired and have no kids in school. In recent years, my wife and I hosted three exchange students who went to Centennial High School in the West Ada School District. All were treated well and had wonderful experiences. The principal, faculty and staff were outstanding.
So I can say with some authority that, at least at Centennial High School, public education is in good hands. I have no reservations voting for bond issues and levies, which generally raise my taxes no more than the price of a dozen golf balls. I also vote in school board elections, where voter turnouts in West Ada and throughout the state are somewhere between deplorable and pathetic.
Sen. Mary Souza, a Republican from Coeur d’Alene, tried unsuccessfully to do something to boost the turnouts. Souza, with Sen. Jim Rice of Caldwell co-sponsoring, proposed a bill that would move school board elections from May of odd years to the November general election in even years – when peopleactually vote. Her bill also gave school districts the option of scrapping the ridiculous “zone voting,” in which even fewer people decide the outcome of school board elections.
“It’s a simple bill to increase voter turnout for an important election that has been getting only single-digit turnouts in many parts of the state, our area included,” Souza said in her recent newsletter to constituents.
Judging by the reaction, you’d think that Souza was declaring war against North Korea.
“Having trustees take office on Jan. 1 simply does not work with the school schedule,” said Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Board Association in an article written by the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell.
“Setting the budget in February will be challenging, since the Legislature obviously has not set appropriations for the coming fiscal year,” said Rob Winslow of the Idaho Association of School Administrators in Russell’s piece.
Who says a new board must set budgets in February? The thrust of Souza’s bill was about holding school board elections at a time that will ensure the highest possible voter turnout. School board members can set budgets whenever they want, whether they are elected in May or November. It’s not that complicated.
Ironically, Souza said, “Not one of the stakeholder groups opposing this bill expressed any concern about the low voter turnouts in these elections. Not even a passing mention.”
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a Boise Democrat, said (in Russell’s story) she was concerned that shifting elections to November in even years would result in “voter fatigue?” The fear, apparently, is that school board elections and longer ballots would create too much stress and confusion to the voters.
Hmmm. I’d rather see “voter fatigue” than the level of non-participation we’re seeing in school board elections, which is what we’re getting with today’s flawed system. It’s the same system that, along the goofy “zone” voting, that two years ago elected several new school board members in West Ada County. That group had one big mission – to make life miserable for Superintendent Linda Clark, who was well regarded in the community. It didn’t take long for the howls of protest to surface. Clark resigned under pressure, two board members resigned and two others were recalled after less than a year in office.
The “zone” voting made things worse, at least for me as a voter. I had reservations about one of the candidates running, but couldn’t vote in that race because I wasn’t in the right zone. The candidate ended up winning, and the rest is history.
The funny thing is, while people were calling for the heads of the West Ada board members, hardly anything was said about the shoddy system that helped elect the troublemakers. Low turnout usually produces board members who go along, get along and rarely make waves. But it didn’t work out that way two years ago.
I’ll give Souza props for trying to fix a broken system. But, as she found out, institutional changes are not easy – with school boards, or the Legislature.
“Better access to school board elections will help more community members of all political flavors engage in the process and be more interested and invested in our schools and our students,” Souza said.
The arguments for change clearly are on her side.