Editorial: How do we spark interest in our school boards?

The deadline for submitting petitions to run for a seat on your local board of education was Monday — and, once again, it seems few people cared.

Not one of the five local ballots will feature a contested race. Zero.

Only three newcomers, Philip Mastrangelo in Oysterponds, Jason Cooper in New Suffolk and Barbara Wheaton in Mattituck-Cutchogue, came forward to serve this year, and three of 11 incumbents chose not to run. 

This disinterest may mean everyone is content with the leadership of our boards of education; it may mean everyone is frustrated with the entire situation; or it may mean both attitudes are common in our communities.

In a special report last May, we asked many local administrators and longtime school board members why they believe so few people have run for school board seats in recent years.

Here’s a refresher on how some of them responded:

“People are living very busy lives,” said Southold and Greenport superintendent David Gamberg. “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.” He said the 2 percent tax cap is also a factor, a notion echoed by longtime Oysterponds board member Linda Goldsmith.

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

New York State School Boards Association spokeswoman Barbara Bradley said, “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.”

New Suffolk school board president Tony Dill agreed, saying he believes the absence of candidates in his elementary district reflects how satisfied residents are with the way the school is operating.

“Due to the work of the faculty, we have a really strong level of community support,” he said. “Most of the time, it tends to be an incumbent running unopposed. In that case, I think that the public is essentially content with the direction of the school board.”

But is it a good thing when few members of the community participate and the electoral process no longer really determines school leadership?

We’d argue, no.

While we agree that tax cap gimmicks and standardized testing are discouraging many residents from getting involved, our tiny local school districts — and really, all our schools are small — are also to blame.

In New Suffolk, a school that serves fewer than 20 students in a small community, the pool of potential candidates is very small. There hasn’t been a race in New Suffolk since 2003 and this year, with the district facing a looming shortfall, only one resident submitted a petition to run.

Even the largest school system on the North Fork, Mattituck-Cutchogue, hasn’t featured a contested election in five years.

Perhaps the North Fork’s five school districts are just too small and 27 school board seats are too many.

While the idea of establishing a unified Southold Town School District might be too radical for many to consider, having a single school board comprising one representative from each of the current school districts could spark renewed interest in participation through more competition and a more diverse set of interests.