November 5: Hoosiers did more homework on local school board candidates than any other breed in the 2022 election.
The candidate forums attracted a packed audience and most or all of the candidates showed up.
Interviews with school board candidates in newspapers and media were widely read and viewed, and most or all candidates responded to such requests for interviews.
That’s the beauty of the non-partisan election format for school board competitions in Indiana and 46 other states. People looking for a seat on the school board don’t have an “R” or “D” or “L” next to their names on the ballot papers and it should stay that way.
The governing political party of the Indiana General Assembly tried to change the state’s non-partisan school board system in last winter’s legislative session, but public opposition crumbled that attempt. The Republican lawmakers pushing those bills had rationalized the electoral tactic as something of a noble gesture, insisting that party labels would provide voters with more information.
That claim was denied this fall.
As school board candidates run as non-party, without a party etiquette, voters ask them more questions about issues and those issues are almost always hyper-local, from hiring teachers and principals to textbook fees, contract negotiations, staffing levels, construction projects, use of the facility and free and reduced lunch policies.
Voters deepened their studies of school board candidates this fall, and those candidates, including as many as 14 looking for four seats on the Vigo County school board, generally responded.
This is less true of partisan contests, where some candidates – usually incumbents with multiple terms – skip community forums and ignore pre-election interviews and questionnaires. Voters in those races must rely on R, D, and Ls which reveal little about those candidates’ intentions for infrastructure projects, state funding for education, workforce development policies, and more.
Indiana lawmakers who said they wanted voters to be more knowledgeable about school board candidates have made their wish come true. And they didn’t have to force school board candidates to wear political party labels to do so.
“Voters have a wealth of information about K-12 schools and school board candidates, and I think it’s to the benefit of our public, to be a well-informed constituency,” said Terry Spradlin, Indiana School Executive Director. Association of Boards of Directors.
“It shows that we don’t need partisan elections for school boards,” Spradlin added on Thursday afternoon. He sees “no new impetus” for the legislator to try again to adopt partisan school council elections.
Interest in those races is already at a peak now. “There is a high level of attention and scrutiny of school board competitions throughout the state of Indiana,” Spradlin said.
Of course, national political forces intent on polarizing the country down to the local school level do not give up, even after they failed to persuade Indiana to politicize school board competitions. National Political Action Committees (PACs) and parties have entered school board competitions in some metropolitan areas of Indiana, inflating divisive issues that appeal to people’s emotions at the time of the vote but in reality have little relevance to their local schools.
“Throughout the state, there are members of political parties and election committees who donate to school board candidates,” Andrew Downs, director emeritus of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics in Fort Wayne, said Thursday. “Whether the voters like it or not, school board competitions are framed in traditional partisan ways. I won’t be surprised if there is a bill. [in the Indiana Legislature next year] trying to convert school board races into partisans “.
Indiana does not need a general school board election. School board members testified at legislative hearings last winter about bills to force candidates to declare a political party, and said they served alongside school board members without ever knowing the political persuasions of those colleagues, according to Indiana Citizen, non-partisan, non-profit in favor of civic engagement.
School board members who are not openly political should become openly political and would most likely lose their seats to party-backed candidates. They would be distracted from their core mission, serving the daily needs of local children and making sure the necessary teachers, staff and resources are adequately provided.
In recent years, school board members have had a lot of issues that demanded their attention and attracted Hoosiers’ interest. Many of these issues have been pushed into local school boards by politicians ‘education policies dating back to former Governor Mitch Daniels’ reforms and the avalanche along with local issues over the past decade surrounding the Vigo County school system.
Vigo Countians’ high interest in school board competitions and related issues is part of the “snowball effect” of that progression, said Matt Bergbower, a political science professor at Indiana State University.
“This is just a lot of education issues that will be presented to Vigo County residents in a short amount of time,” Bergbower said Thursday. “Having recognized that, it would make sense that the school board competitions are getting more attention than usual. We’ve been building this moment for years.”
And these issues are best handled by a local school board made up of members with the least possible direct connection to political party influences. The Indiana School Board’s non-partisan election process is expected to remain in place.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]