Among elected officials, most will tell you that serving on the school board is probably the most thankless elected office a person can hold.
An idea coming from a northeast Indiana state rep would likely make running for school board even less desirable.
State Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, recently noted he’s mulling the idea of filing a bill that would make school board races partisan.
Let’s get ahead of it — that’s a terrible idea.
Currently, school board races are the only local government office that is non-partisan, meaning candidates don’t declare and don’t run under a Republican, Democrat or other party label.
Morris, who represents District 84 covering north and northeast portions of Fort Wayne, would change that.
“I’ve had a number of constituents call me and express concerns with the way their school boards are functioning and currently operating,” Morris said. “I’ve been elected for 11 years and it seems all too frequent that people call me with (concerns about) their kids’ school districts.
“I think it’s all too fair to ensure that the constituents and the people of Indiana know which party these school board members affiliate themselves with,” he said.
We suspect that Morris has been hearing from some disgruntled constituents who are either mad about the practical issue of masks at school and/or the illusory issue of critical race theory.
Morris, one of the state’s most right-leaning reps, obviously smells an opportunity to try to hurl Democrats or moderately left-leaning independents off of school boards.
He, of course, ignores all the likely negative impacts of making school board races partisan. So we’ll run them down:
First, it’s hard enough to find candidates for school board as it is, without adding another layer that would likely discourage some from running.
In 2018, for example, of 16 school board races in Noble and LaGrange counties, there was just one (1) contest and two races where zero (0) candidates filed for the seat.
In 2020, the sheet was improved, but still only five of 11 races had contests.
Partisan races at the county, city and town level are even worse and are rarely contested come November.
Second, partisan races will further discourage people from actually learning anything about the candidates in the race.
Most residents couldn’t tell you how many people serve on their local school board much less name any of them. When Election Day comes around, voters often pick randomly or skip the school board races entirely.
In 2020, 42% of voters in the four-county area voted a straight-party ticket, which automatically selects all candidates of one party. Voters don’t even have to read the names, they just make a blanekt selection of every R, D or L on the ballot. That option doesn’t work, however, for non-partisan school board races, forcing voters to actually look at and deliberately pick candidates.
With partisan races and the prevalence of voters auto-filling their ballot, there would be even less incentive for voters to seek out what a candidate actually thinks and believes in ahead of Election Day in favor of some generic party affiliation.
Third, as every voter in northeast Indiana knows, pretty much the only way to win an elected office in this region is to run as a Republican.
We already know of at least a handful of local officials who appear on ballots as Republicans but are likely anything but.
Beyond that, though, partisan politics usually plays little to no role in local government. At the county, town and school level, the difference between left-leaning and right-leaning officials is often little to none.
Unlike national politics, local officials are more interested in doing what’s best for their community than trying to score cheap political wins and make theatrical shows of their party loyalty.
So what’s to really be gained by putting a party letter next to a candidate’s name except for trying to make school boards as single-party as the rest of Indiana government?
If people are displeased with their current representation, there’s already a remedy for that — filing and running for office.
Instead of lazily picking candidates based on R or D or L or I, voters can take time to actually learn something about the people running for office through pre-election coverage in local media, local debates or town hall discussions.
That will lead to a more informed constituency, stronger democracy and better school boards.
OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Grace Housholder, Andy Barrand, Michael Marturello and Steve Garbacz. We welcome readers’ comments.