Partisan school boards: A really bad idea Skip to content

Partisan school boards: A really bad idea

Working together for the sake of our students is much harder when we stick D and R by our names.

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One of the most damaging pieces of legislation being promoted in the Kentucky State Legislature by the Republican majority this session would make school board elections partisan.

It’s a bad idea. Really bad.

Especially now, when our society seems to have moved from political parties that have a history of working together, to political tribes that adhere to their agendas first rather than cooperating to pass laws that fit a diverse population.

Why it’s a bad idea

The Texas association of school boards makes a good case for nonpartisan boards. It says, “Partisan politics are a distraction. School boards should be focused on students, not the controversies of the day.”

Nonpartisan elections promote working together. If board members felt they had to toe a party line, it would affect the quality of debate and the decisions they make as a unit.

It has been said during this new debate that the best way to be informed about a candidate is to know the political party.

I disagree completely.

Attaching a partisan moniker to school board members would be a disservice to voters. It wouldn’t necessarily tell them how board members would vote on a particular issue. It would just make people less likely to really listen to what’s important to their local school system.

And the political promises candidates might have to make would reduce their service to responding to the hot button issues of the day, leaving less time and energy for addressing the variety of issues that come up throughout the year.

My experience as a school board member

In my experience running for school board, people seek out the information they want to know. Generally, they want to know that you will focus on student achievement. No one ever asked me about my political affiliation.

I’ve been in a number of very difficult deliberations about a variety of issues. We heard and discussed all the arguments for and against whatever was before us and listened to citizens who signed up to speak, often for hours. Adding a partisan element to this process wouldn’t shed light on the issue; it would hide the detail necessary to reach a decision.

School board service is too important to be partisan. Boards meet year-round and schools are in session almost as long. Votes are taken at every meeting. In Jefferson County, regular meetings are twice a month; in other districts it’s once a month. And boards are on call depending on what new needs arise.

And finally, it could drain the life out of school board service. For me, and for those with whom I served, it is a calling and a real honor to serve the community. I can’t imagine my political affiliation being part of my identity as board member.

We need healthy school boards, not partisan ones

Being nonpartisan doesn’t keep people from following the school board on issues they care about. Every year when the tax rate is considered, people show up at meetings. When other controversial issues arise, people make sure their board members know how they feel. That’s healthy.

What’s not healthy is putting an R or a D by a candidate’s name and assuming that’s going to tell you how a school board member is going to vote on a variety of issues. How about the need to build a new school? That’s a big expense. What about buying new, safer buses? Are we for safety or saving money? What about hiring a superintendent? Are we going to put partisanship before educational experience?

I think the board of education in Kingsport, Tennessee got it right. This board passed a resolution that says in part, “partisan elections could create division among the board and shift the focus away from the needs of the students.”

During my eight years as a board member, I always felt my colleagues and I listened to each other and aired all the issues necessary to make decisions on behalf of our community. It will make a difference if a political party gets between board members and the community.

We’re already dealing with divisive issues on every level of government and some have been about education. But those issues should be considered based on how they impact students, schools and families.

Selfless service, not political sides

It’s not time to simplify decisions by putting a party stamp on one or the other. Rather, it’s time to recommit to the type of selfless service board members devote themselves to.

Tennessee just had its first partisan elections for school board. It recently passed a law that allows (not requires) school board elections to be partisan. In an interview with a local TV station, a mom of two said it has had an effect. “Now there’s a side, whereas before, it was like, these are our kids, these were our schools, this was something that we could all work on together,” she said. “I mean, it really just has flattened the conversation into, like, a right versus left conversation.”

Do we really want to go there?

Let’s avoid following this damaging trend. Let’s come together, think big, and recommit to supporting our school districts in the way that citizens and business leaders did 30 years ago when the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) was enacted.

Making our school board elections partisan is not thinking big. And it’s not really thinking small. It’s not thinking at all.

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Written by Debbie Wesslund, who served as the District 3 representative on the Jefferson County Board of Education from 2007-2014.




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