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States Mull Impact of Reforms on Board Politics

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Scores of Kentucky school board candidates are running unopposed in next week's elections, and some political observers say the state's landmark school-reform law may be the cause.

As the Nov. 8 elections approach, Kentucky is one of several states mulling the impact of statewide reforms on local board politics.

"There are many elections where there is only one candidate," said Thomas E. Gish, a member of the Kentucky state board of education and the editor of The Mountain Eagle, a weekly newspaper in Whitesburg. "That is a big change from a decade ago, where every vacancy was heavily contested."

Mr. Gish suggested that such news may be positive. Implementation of the 1990 act, which stripped board members of much of their control over district personnel decisions, may have deterred people from running for office for the sake of gaining control over patronage, he said .

Other experts on Kentucky school board politics disagreed, saying that if there is such a drop in interest, it is likely due to confusion and uncertainty generated by the reform act.

Elsewhere, voters next week will weigh ballot measures that could significantly affect local school boards in the near future:

  • In Virginia, a new round of districts appears likely to take advantage of a recent state law allowing them to switch from appointed to elected school boards.
  • A Nevada proposal contains provisions that would limit local school board members to 12 years in office.
  • Colorado and District of Columbia measures would hold board members to two consecutive terms.
  • A proposed amendment to the New Mexico constitution would prohibit recall of school board members.
  • A Utah initiative would require school board candidates to get a majority, not just a plurality, of the votes cast.

Arkansas state officials, meanwhile, had yet to determine last week whether approximately 120 districts had complied with a new law requiring them to establish ward-based voting for school board elections. Board elections there were held earlier this fall.

Confusion in Kentucky

Kentucky has 556 candidates running for 409 open school board seats, said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association. In 99 of the state's 176 districts, only one candidate has filed for each of the available seats, he said.

In part because the state lacks such figures for past elections, Mr. Hughes said there is little evidence to support the conclusion that interest in school board seats has dropped statewide.

However, the Lexington Herald-Leader last month reported that anti-patronage provisions in the Kentucky Education Reform Act appear to have taken much of the heat out of board races in eastern Kentucky, especially in some districts that were home to the scandals that helped inspire the changes.

Alice H. Davis, a spokeswoman for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' advocacy group, said she also has seen a drop in the number of candidates running for school board seats. Having studied public attitudes toward the reform act, she speculated, however, that it may have simply created confusion about the role school boards now play. (See Education Week, Oct. 20, 1993.)

"I am not sure that people have an idea what school boards still do, or what their focus is," Ms. Davis said. "People are staying out of that process until this becomes more clear."

Jim Parks, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said he believes the law has affected local board races primarily by spotlighting issues such as accountability, testing, and the role of school boards in the leadership of individual schools.

Virginia Embraces Elections

In Virginia, 18 communities are holding referendums next week to decide whether to switch from appointed to elected school boards.

Since a state law allowing for such changes took effect in the summer of 1993, 81 localities have held such votes, and all but one have switched to elected boards. (See Education Week, March 16, 1994.)

The lone exception is Danville, in the south-central part of the state, where voters in May voted to keep their appointed board.

"By electing school boards, you don't get your better people," argued Bennie Hayden, a retired Danville businessman who served as co-chairman of the citizens' group that campaigned to keep the appointed board. "Your best people will not expose themselves to political contests."

Sixteen Virginia districts held their first school board elections in May, and two more will follow next week. In one, Roanoke County, candidates have courted votes by pledging to be more aggressive in asking county supervisors for school funds.

In neighboring North Carolina, a new state law allows a single school district, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City, to recall school board members. The district, which planned to hold the recall election next week, last month saw the resignation of the controversial board member whose fate the new law was designed to allow voters to decide.

Assessing Arkansas Law

In Arkansas, state officials last week remained uncertain of the level of compliance among districts that were required to divide into wards for school board elections held Sept. 20.

A new state law was designed to pre-empt voting-rights lawsuits and insure more black representation on school boards. It requires districts with minority populations of at least 10 percent to adopt ward-based voting or risk seeing 20 percent of their state education money withheld.

State officials said last week they have received no complaints about districts disobeying the law.

But Mark Burnette, a lawyer for a firm that has brought several voting-rights lawsuits against Arkansas districts, said he doubted that all districts had complied, especially given the logistical problems some had faced in trying to draw up wards. (See Education Week, Sept. 14, 1994.)

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