Special Report: School board races a thing of the past

(Credit: Paul Squire)
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)

The only contested race in 2013 was in Oysterponds, where two of the three board members up for re-election stepped down after the budget failed in 2012 following controversy over the district’s secondary school contract. Five residents petitioned to run, including four challengers. No other Southold Town school district saw a non-incumbent run in 2013.

Only one resident in any of Southold Town’s five districts submitted a petition to run as a challenger this year: Brian Tobin of Southold, who didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this story. This is the first time in at least 45 years that only one newcomer’s name will appear on any district ballot. Even in 1990, the last time there were no contested races in any local district, three newcomers stepped up to fill vacated seats.

Oysterponds school board member Linda Goldsmith, who has served her district for over 20 years, said she believes the apathy stems from how the cap and other state mandates have hindered a school board’s ability to see their own ideas come to fruition.

“With this 2 percent cap, it’s hard to start innovative programs because you don’t have a lot of authority,” she said. “You have to do whatever you can to come in under the cap, and we’re stuck with Common Core.”

Although the probability of beating an incumbent is slim — and voicing your opinion on controversial topics could make one unpopular with neighbors — she believes residents should still take a chance.

“So what if you lose?” said Ms. Goldsmith, who lost her first race by eight votes to a former board president. “Everybody loses at some point.”

Greenport school board vice president Dan Creedon was first elected in 2009, after running unsuccessfully in a contested race a decade earlier.

Mr. Creedon said he ran for the first time after the district reduced the elementary school arts program budget in order to add a keyboarding curriculum. He said he disagreed with the move because he believes schools with strong arts programs have better attendance and graduation rates.

“I thought I had a good showing, but I lost,” he said of that first bid. “I’m not surprised. I was running against incumbents. The school was well-run and the taxes were low.”

History has shown that, like Oysterponds last year and Mattituck in 2005, more candidates step up during controversial times or in years following a failed budget. New York State School Boards Association spokeswoman Barbara Bradley said that’s a trend across the state.

Although the association doesn’t keep data on the number of candidates running for school boards, it does track budget passage rates, which she said is the prime indicator of how a community feels about its school district.

“Historically, if there’s an issue in the school or someone is stirring the pot in the community, then you tend to have more candidates,” Ms. Bradley said. “Turnout for elections, by and large, is pretty low unless there’s a particular issue that drives the public to the polls.

“If things are going fine and the general public is happy with how things are being run, then we have many incumbents running unopposed,” she said.

Locally, however, interest in serving on school boards has been so low that in each of the past three years a district has had to fill a seat through a write-in vote. That had not happened since 1989.

This month, Greenport will hold a write-in election for an open seat for the second time in three years.

Mr. Creedon said he doesn’t believe the decline in the number of challengers in Greenport, where a contested election hasn’t occurred since 2010, is a negative reflection on the school, since the community continues to support the budgets and the district’s sporting and concert events are well attended, even if school board meetings are not.