Editorial: Is it time to rethink local elections?

This year’s School Board election is shaping up to be, we hate to say it, a bit of a sham.

We have three candidates for six positions, all of whom are incumbents.

They fill two at-large positions and a Sweet Home position. The positions for which no candidates have filed are Foster, Crawfordsville and Cascadia.

This shortage of candidates strongly suggests that it is time to end what remnants of the historic issues of unification, which originally led to the designated-seat arrangement we have today, remain in Sweet Home.

For those who may not be clear on what we’re talking about here, the current Sweet Home School District once included a number of separate school districts that unified in the 1960s. Not everyone was eager to see local control depart from the neighborhood schools in Crawfordsville, Holley, Liberty, Pleasant Valley, Foster and Cascadia, so the folks who engineered the unification crafted a system in which board members were elected to represent some of those outlying areas in particular seats, in addition to some “at-large” positions that generally represent schools within the city itself. Though the entire school district votes oncandidates for each of those “local” seats, those candidates must come from the area whose name is associated with that position.

We understand and appreciate the reasoning that went into that arrangement. We also understand the obvious: It isn’t working very well any more. It may be outdated.

A lot has happened in recent decades, during which half the schools named above have closed.

That’s sad in terms of community identity and the impact of closing a rural school on the local community was certainly a critical part of the discussion most recently in Crawfordsville.

But for many of us, including folks in the outlying localities, our current district is our community

That mentality, incidentally, is one of the primary criteria we use at The New Era to develop and act on story ideas. We view the district boundaries as the geographical definition of our community and coverage area, although we recognize that it isn’t always perfectly black and white. When people talk about Sweet Home, unless they’re specifically referring to the city itself, they’re likely referring to the geographical area encompassed by the school district boundaries.

But back to our point: We’ve got empty seats representing specific areas and we have no one to run for those seats.

David VanDerlip has represented Crawfordsville for many years with no competition for his seat. Leena Ellis and Kevin Burger have represented Cascadia. Ellis is now representing Foster. They’re all leaving the board this year with no candidates poised to step into the void, let alone compete for their seats.

Frankly, after last year’s hubbub over the use of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in Junior High language arts classes, we anticipated more interest from parents and other residents regarding the future of our schools. After the healthy mix of candidates we saw for the City Council election last November, we hoped for more of the same this time around. Obviously, it hasn’t happened.

There is still hope. The way things are shaping up, a candidate mounting a write-in campaign could have a very good chance of landing a seat.

If a write-in candidate does not get the win or is not willing to serve after his or her friends have volunteered him or her to take the often thankless job of serving on the school board, then it will fall on the School Board to appoint members.

While we have great respect and appreciation for our board, do we really want a third of the members appointed by their future colleagues?

So what’s the solution? We strongly suggest that the School Board consider an arrangement similar to that used by the City of Sweet Home: Hold a general election in which any number of candidates run for a designated number of seats to be filled.

In the case of the School Board, the district should vote for five positions every two years, with the top four vote-getters receiving four-year terms and the fifth-place candidate elected to a two-year term.

Obviously, if residents of, say, Cascadia decided they wanted a candidate to represent their particular community interests, they could talk one of their neighbors into running and vote for him or her. Likely, with a concerted turnout of local neighborhood voters, that candidate would stand a good chance of getting a position on the board. The neighborhood would still get the representation they’re supposed to be getting now. But if a willing candidate doesn’t materialize, nobody gets mud on their face.

Let’s take this thinking one step further: to the board elections of the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District. There we have two quality candidates running against each other, each with significant experience in the world of medical emergency services and firefighting (see page 17). Because they’re running against each other for a specific seat, one of them won’t be elected this time around. That’s too bad. And that’s why SHFAD should think about generalizing its board structure as well.

Voters should be intelligent enough to perceive who, beyond the fact that they have friends or people whose names they recognize running for office, is best suited to the job at hand. If they aren’t, we recommend they read up on the candidates or organize a forum and invite the candidates for some Q&A as some did for last year’s City Council election.

SHFAD could also use a model similar to the city’s: hold an election every two years in which three of its five seats are open. The top two vote-getters would be elected to four-year terms and the third-highest finisher would get two. All the candidates would be running against each other, instead of being guaranteed a seat because there’s no competition in one particular “race.”

We don’t want to belabor the point, but if Sweet Home community residents want quality representation in these decision-making bodies that can significantly affect our lives, we should reduce the restraints that might prevent the candidates who might be our best leaders from serving.