School board races, often sleepy affairs, garnered a lot of voter attention—and campaign cash—in several communities this month.
The off-year elections this week in Wake County, N.C., and Eden Prairie, Minn., and in Denver on Nov. 1, produced higher-than-usual turnout.
The voter interest in the Eden Prairie and Wake County districts was spurred by long-running concerns over student-assignment policies and led in both districts to turnover in control of the school board.
The controversy in the 147,000-student Wake County district traces back to an earlier school board election, in 2009, when the board gained new members backed particularly by conservatives in the community. In March 2010, a few months after the election, the new five-person majority voted to scrap the district’s decade-old busing policy, which had been considered by some as a national model for school integration. The plan used student socioeconomic status in order to avoid schools with concentrated levels of poverty.
The change to the student-assignment policy drew widespread attention. The superintendent at the time, Del Burns, resigned, saying he could not in “good conscience” continue to work for the district. The local branch of the NAACP held a protest march.
And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chided the district. “School is where children learn to appreciate, respect, and collaborate with people different from themselves,” he wrote, in a letter published in The Washington Post.
Many Wake County parents, however, supported the end of the old student-assignment policy, saying they were tired of having their children shuffled from school to school as the fast-growing district tried to manage growth and diversity. (“Cooling Signs in Wake Debate,” Feb. 23, 2011.)
School board elections on Oct. 11 ousted one major proponent of neighborhood schools, Ron Margiotta, who was the board’s chairman. Two Democratic-backed candidates who were critical of the past board’s actions also won seats on the board.
But Democratic-backed incumbent Kevin Hill, a supporter of the old student-assignment process, didn’t clear the 50 percent vote hurdle he needed to avoid a runoff, prompting the Nov. 8 election between him and Republican challenger Heather Losurdo.
On Tuesday, Mr. Hill won 52.3 percent of the vote, while Ms. Losurdo received 47.7 percent. More than 4,000 more voters cast ballots in this race than in the October election; 20,412 voters participated in the runoff, compared with 16,332 last month. The results created a new majority, made up of critics of the Republican-backed board members.
But since the first burst of attention to the 2010 policy change, the officially nonpartisan board has coalesced around a “controlled choice” plan that would offer parents a choice of several schools for their children, using test scores as one of a series of factors in creating that list. The goal would be to have students attend a school of their choosing, but not one that has a high percentage of students with low scores on state tests.
Mr. Hill was one of two board members who voted against the controlled-choice plan. But the former teacher and principal said he “would not suggest going back to the drawing board,” according to an interview in the Raleigh News & Observer. He wants the assignment policy to give low-achieving students a chance to attend high-achieving schools through seats set aside specifically for them.
Both Republican- and Democratic-backed organizations poured money into the strongly contested school board races in Wake County. Total campaign contributions for the October race and the November runoff are expected to top $500,000.
Results in Minnesota
In Minnesota’s Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis that has seen an influx of less affluent students whose parents are immigrants from Somalia, voters on Tuesday elected a slate of candidates to the seven-member board who have all been critical of a boundary plan intended to bring about a similar economic integration.
The redrawing of student-assignment boundaries in the community had shifted students so that no one elementary school would have more than a quarter of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The change moved about 1,100 students to different schools from those they had been attending, and changed the district’s elementary school grade configurations to K-6 schools instead of K-4 schools. (“School Boundary Debate Divides Minn. Suburb,” Oct. 5, 2011.)
The remapping of the 9,700-student district prompted vocal opposition from parents, who said the school board wasn’t responsive to their concerns and didn’t consider alternative plans that would avoid changing school assignments.
The turnout this week was high for a school board race. Eight candidates were running for four at-large seats, and more than 3,500 votes went to each of the four who were elected. In 2009, in comparison, each winning school board candidate received only about 1,500 votes.
The two incumbent members of the board who voted against the plan, John Estall and Holly Parker, were re-elected. Two newcomers, Karla Bratrud and David Espe, were critical of the plan and were also elected. They ran together in a slate called BEEP, for the first letter of their last names.
Incumbent Kim Ross, a strong supporter of the boundary change, was not re-elected. She received 1,372 votes.
The new board members have not offered a hint about whether they will try to reverse the boundary changes, which went into effect this school year.
“We’re going to look at it and see where things are at,” Mr. Estall told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank in Washington, sees similarities in the outcomes in Wake County and Eden Prairie.
“Voters are more supportive of integration when it’s accomplished through some kind of public school choice,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. He noted that in the larger Wake County district, parents spoke out strongly in favor of magnet school programs, while in the smaller Eden Prairie district, the mandatory changes sparked vocal opposition.
“The most important lesson is that proponents of integration should emphasize public school choice,” Mr. Kahlenberg said.
Wake County’s election was not the only school board race this fall that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash.
In Denver, a slate of candidates considered supporters of school reform squared off against candidates who were more wary of their brand of change, which included restructuring schools and tying teacher pay to student performance. Two of the “reform” candidates won, maintaining their majority on the board. Almost $790,000 was raised by candidates in the Denver election, which was held Nov. 1.
By comparison, a 2010 report sponsored by the National School Boards Association and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute noted two-thirds of school board races nationwide are contested for less than $1,000.
One of the reasons the Denver race drew so much attention is because school board races, unlike campaigns for every other elected office in the state, are not bound by a 2002 ban on direct union and corporate campaign expenditures. An attempt last year to bring school board races under the same restrictions failed in the state legislature.
Not all districts focused on big money or served as proxies for national education issues. In the 3,300-student Parlier, Calif., district, one school board member was part of an effort to recall his four fellow board members because he was upset that they fired the superintendent. The effort failed.
And anti-incumbent sentiment led to two school board members’ being successfully recalled in the 1,000-student Ellicott, Colo., district. A third incumbent lost in a race for re-election.
It has always been easier to recall elected officials at the local level than at the state level, said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City, and the creator of a blog on recall elections.
In partisan elections, voters would be rejecting a party, Mr. Spivak said. “School boards are nonpartisan, so that’s an easier vote to cast” in a recall effort, he said. Of the 30 local recall efforts across the country since Nov. 1, 10 were for school boards; six board members from various boards were ousted and four—those in Parlier—survived.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week