Weekly Feature

2012-04-04 / Editorial

Job of school board members becoming even less desirable

Managing Editor

Suppose an election were held for members of a board of education and no one ran? It's a frightening possibility this year in Western New York, given the difficult decisions boards have to make.

Board members are unpaid stewards of public education. They are expected to have the wisdom of Solomon, the credibility of Lincoln and the financial acumen of Scrooge. In other words, why would anyone want to be one?

It is no longer about which geography book to select for junior high students. The decision is whether or not an online curriculum is most appropriate for middle schoolers, and which one is best.

Entrance doors are locked during the school day, and in many educational sites, cameras eavesdrop on everyone's activities. These security measures first had to be proposed and debated at the board level, and if approved, added to an already-lean budget. Finding a way to finance unfunded mandates from Albany has added an additional burden to the process.

All the while, board members have to remind themselves that they are not running a business. They are charged with providing the best education possible for the children of their community. Yet each year in New York State, crafting a school budget becomes a bit more mechanical. It has become increasingly difficult to see the faces of the children from behind the blunt reality of a spreadsheet.

This challenge is beginning to impact local boards. Fewer and fewer newcomers are running for office. Incumbents are no longer serving multiple terms. Prospective candidates now have less than two weeks to file their petitions to be on the ballot for the May 15 election, but a real possibility exists in some communities that there may not be enough candidates to run for the number of open seats.

Never fear; enter the state Education Department.

Union free and central school districts have the power to fill a vacancy whenever it occurs. Common school districts must call a special meeting "immediately" to fill the vacancy when it occurs, according to the New York State School Boards Association. Any school board may call a special election to fill a vacancy within 90 days after it occurs. The commissioner of education may order a special election to fill a vacancy in a union free school district.

Otherwise, school boards in union free, central and small city school districts may choose instead to appoint a qualified person to fill a vacancy. There are ways around this provision. Unscrupulous individuals could conspire with those of the same persuasion already on the board with the understanding that if the application deadline passes without enough candidates on the ballot, a majority of board members could ramrod that individual's appointment through to reality. This would completely circumvent the voice of the voters.

Also, a write-in candidate would win the seat as long as he or she was a "qualified" candidate, according to the association. Both tactics are deceptive and undemocratic.

In reality, voters get what they deserve. If there are not enough candidates for the number of open board seats, the community suffers. Such lack of interest sends a negative message to voters as well as parents and students. Incomplete school board ballots signal a significant disconnect with stakeholders.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the value of having students serve on their local board of education. Usually appointed by the superintendent, they cannot vote and do not participate in confidential personnel matters. Yet they are helpful, constructive voices in the decision-making process. It would be a tremendous advantage to any school district to have one of these students graduate and run for a conventional board seat once that individual reached voting age.

Unless, of course, someone else wants to step up and show a willingness to serve. Then voters would have a choice to make. That would be the best outcome of all.

(David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.)

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