Editorial: Ideas to generate interest in school board elections

05/09/2014 8:00 AM |
here were two audience members at Tuesday night’s Oysterponds school board meeting in Orient. Most Board of Education meetings on the North Fork have low turnouts. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

There were two audience members at Tuesday night’s Oysterponds school board meeting in Orient. Most Board of Education meetings on the North Fork have low turnouts. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

The past two springs we’ve published an editorial on the declining number of candidates running for local school boards. Each time, we speculated that the property tax levy cap has likely dissuaded newcomers from pursuing open seats.

Many of the school board members we spoke to this week agreed with that theory, while also suggesting other factors, including fear of holding such a large responsibility in a small community and general satisfaction with how the districts are being run. 

While experience can be a desirable quality in a school board member, the disinterest most community members seem to display toward participating in their school district’s decision-making process troubles us. It’s not just that there are so few candidates to choose from each election, it’s also that school board meetings are so sparsely attended the rest of the year. Since school taxes make up such a large portion — close to two-thirds — of the average homeowner’s property tax bill, this apparent indifference could have devastating consequences if not scrutinized closely enough by the community.

As we prepared this week’s school board piece, we discussed ways school and state officials could generate more interest in our Boards of Education and get more names on the ballot. Here are three possible solutions.

Make the meetings more accessible

The Southold Town Board announced this week that it’s taking its show on the road, hosting meetings in various venues outside Town Hall. How come school boards never do that?

Holding every meeting at our schools creates an inner circle that’s not reflective of our community as a whole. Parents and other community members who frequent the school are more likely to attend those meetings than residents without school-aged children. If school boards occasionally held meetings at community centers, firehouses and churches, for example, they might generate better turnout.

Offer a tax exemption for board service

Before tossing this newspaper in your fireplace over the thought of more tax breaks, consider this: Board of Education members manage the budget that impacts your total tax bill more than any other spending plan. Don’t you want the best and brightest in control come budget season?

Offering school board members a property tax exemption or a stipend — similar to the relief many first responders, veterans and clergy receive— could inspire more qualified candidates to throw their hats in the ring.

School board members put in countless hours to serve their communities. Perhaps it’s time we compensate them for that sacrifice.

How much to offer? Leave it up to each district to decide what’s palatable to the community through a referendum.

Let’s see who’s running sooner

We often hear from people that if they’d known an incumbent wasn’t running or that a certain newcomer was submitting petitions for a school board seat, they would have launched their own campaign.

The way the process works now, the public often has no idea who is up for school board until after the 30-day petition deadline passes — after candidates have put in all the work of gathering signatures. What if the law were changed to create a second, earlier deadline for the declaration of intent to run? This way, someone who’s on the fence could decide to commit or pass based on who else is running.

Keep the deadline for submitting petitions at 30 days before the election, but also have a soft declaration deadline two weeks earlier and then let the public know who’s considering a run. While incumbents and challengers would still have time to make their candidacies official, it could give the public a clearer idea of who’s pursuing the open seats.

With more timely information about the competition, potential school board newcomers who are unsure about running when the first deadline passes might an opportunity that inspires them to run.

These suggestions could make the difference for our school districts between continually uncontested races and elections in which taxpayers have a true choice.