Special Report: School board races a thing of the past


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Twenty-seven elected school board members represent residents of the five local districts.

They are charged with setting student performance standards, ratifying costly collective bargaining agreements and hiring well-paid superintendents.

The budgets they adopt make up about two-thirds of your overall tax bill.

Even though school board members are unpaid, they hold prestigious positions within their communities. Yet it appears few residents want that responsibility anymore.

Among school board members currently in office townwide, only seven were elected in contested races. Four times in the past three years, local school boards had more open seats than candidates on the ballot. This year, there are no races.

Why is this happening?

Editor’s Note: A version of this story published in Thursday’s issue of The Suffolk Times stated that three candidates were vying for two open seats in Southold. We have since learned incumbent Scott DeSimone withdrew his name from the race this week.

In 2005, Mattituck-Cutchogue School District voters had more school board candidates to choose from than at any other point in the past three decades.

One resident who submitted a petition to run for the Board of Education that year called the district clerk soon after all petitions were due and asked to have his name removed from the ballot. By state law, any withdrawal automatically triggers a 15-day extension during which more residents can throw their hats into the ring.

When voters headed to the polls that year they had a choice of seven candidates for two open seats.

Five of those candidates were challengers, one of whom was elected that night.

But when those same two seats are filled again this year, voters will have no choice.

No district resident is challenging those incumbents this year — and it’s unlikely anyone will wage a successful write-in campaign.

A dearth of candidates to choose from is a theme across school districts within Southold Town this year, as it has been since 2010, the last year there was a contested school board race in more than one local district.

An analysis of Suffolk Times coverage of the past 45 school district elections shows that the decrease in candidates in recent years is virtually unprecedented.

Since the Mattituck-Laurel merger in 1997, there has been only one other time when school board elections across all five local districts featured just one or fewer contested races. It has now happened four years in a row.

“People are living very busy lives,” said Southold Superintendent David Gamberg, whose district features the only newcomer on the ballot, but only two candidates are vying for the two open seats. “The pressures people are under to manage time and the commitments they have to make for family and work … It’s a tough assignment to take on voluntarily.”

Mr. Gamberg, who’s been Southold superintendent for six years and was an assistant superintendent in the Patchogue-Medford district the previous four years, said he couldn’t pinpoint the direct cause of the current trend, but believes the 2 percent property tax levy cap, enacted in 2011, may be playing a role. He said some residents might wonder whether they’re capable of meeting the needs of all stakeholders — including taxpayers, students and families — under the pressure of preparing budgets that comply with the cap.

“I think school boards are trying to manage budgets in tight times and develop the kind of robust educational programs they want to see for children,” he said. “That’s hard today when you’re put into a position where you have to make tough decisions.”

Some current school board members agree with Mr. Gamberg that residents not wanting to be in the hotseat during budget time could be behind the disinterest. Others believe residents are happy with their districts’ general direction and don’t feel a need for change.