Kentucky wants partisan school board elections. Why it's a bad idea. – Courier Journal

One of the most damaging proposals in the Kentucky State Legislature promoted by the Republican majority would make school board elections partisan.
It’s a bad idea, and especially now when our society seems to have moved from political parties that have a history of working together, to a system of political tribes that adhere to their agendas first, rather than cooperating to pass laws that fit a diverse population.
There are significant differences in school boards and political entities, like legislatures. School boards don’t make the laws they have to follow. Boards are policy-making bodies. School board members hire a superintendent to recommend policies based on what laws require. And they work to manage districts based on funding provided in part by state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.
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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.
In my experience running for school board, people seek out information they want to know. Generally, they ask how you will support student achievement. No one ever asked about my political affiliation.
I’ve been in a number of very difficult deliberations about a variety of issues. We 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 help. It would hide the detail necessary to reach a decision.
Tennessee just had its first partisan elections for school board. It recently passed a law that allows (not requires) partisan school board elections. 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.”
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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. It might make them less likely to really listen to what’s important to their local school system.
School board service is too important to be partisan. Boards meet year-round. 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.
For me, and for those with whom I served, it is a calling and an honor to serve on the school board. I can’t imagine my political affiliation being part of my identity as board member.
Being nonpartisan doesn’t keep people from weighing in on issues they care about. Every year when the tax rate is considered, people show up. 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. How about the need to build a new school? 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 Kingsport, Tennessee, Board of Education 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. It will make a difference if a political party gets in the way.
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.
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.
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 was enacted.
Let your state representatives and senators know what you think about these bills: House Bill 50 and Senate Bill 50.
Making our school board elections partisan is not thinking big. And it’s not really thinking small. It’s not thinking at all.
Debbie Wesslund served on the Jefferson County Board of Education from 2007-2014. Prior to moving to Louisville in 1996, she worked in Washington D.C. as press secretary and staff director for two Oklahoma members of Congress.


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