Editorial: Why nobody is interested in school board seats

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | New Suffolk school board members at a recent meeting.

While kicking around ideas for this week’s editorial, one of our editors suggested we write about how the 2 percent tax levy cap has made it less attractive for members of the public to run for a seat on their local Board of Education.

The cap, he suggested, has limited how much difference members of the school board can actually make.

“Didn’t we already write that editorial?” another editor remarked.

So we went to the archives and, lo and behold, here’s what we wrote on May 10, 2012:

“It may seem strange that in all the school districts from Wading River to Orient there are only two contested seats this year — and in two districts seats will go empty for lack of candidates. But given the circumstances, it’s not strange at all. How many people would want to join a school board when the most pressing business is not how to improve programs but what to cut to satisfy the state? And if you’re worried about taxes, that worry is misplaced given that the state limit is about as tight as it gets.”

It appears the same holds true this year, with just 15 candidates running for 13 school board seats in the seven school districts in Riverhead and Southold towns. Only two districts, Riverhead and Oysterponds, actually have a race this year.

The only district with any significant interest from the public is Oysterponds, where five people are running for three seats — that’s one candidate for every 12 kids in the elementary school. This year’s scariest statistic of all is that there are only two new candidates in the six other local districts.

There was so little interest in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District that, unless a write-in candidate arises and wins, one seat could remain empty at the start of next school year.

Here are five factors we believe explain the dwindling interest in serving on school boards:

• As we stated last year, the tax cap further shifts the focus of all school boards to cutting, or desperately trying to maintain, programs rather than creating new ones. It’s a system that favors the status quo over improving our children’s education. A concerned parent could easily be frustrated by being placed in that predicament.

• An apparent decline in transparency has led to a general distrust of school boards. In some districts, public work sessions were once common, but they’ve since been replaced by more frequent executive sessions.

• Outspoken school board members are becoming a thing of the past. It’s more common nowadays to find board members who work in unison with district administrators than it is to see ones who offer up a differing viewpoint. The school board members who challenge the status quo often end up losing interest and moving on.

• School taxes are the single largest item on our annual tax bills, and that number almost always goes up. It can’t be much fun being the one person on your block who voted to put a tax hike on the ballot.

• Even the most content school board members are fed up with unpopular state and federal mandates they’re being forced to comply with. Before programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top emerged, school board members had much more control over how the district operated.

So what’s to be done? Clearly the powers that be in Albany play a major role in shaping local education programs. Naive as it may be, we can only hope there will be a concerted effort in the capital to re-examine the impacts of state education law and policies on our districts. For our part, we need to stop thinking that the only reason to run for a school board seat is either to improve programs or to cut taxes. We need people who’ll represent the center and take on the essential work of balancing fiscal and curriculum concerns to maintain school systems we can take pride in -— and afford.