Politics and School Board Races

By Del Stover

School board elections are usually sleepy contests, often ignored by many voters and underplayed in the local press, but more than $2 million was spent in 2011 on just three hotly contested campaigns in Denver, North Carolina’s Wake County, and Virginia’s Fairfax County.

That kind of spending -- more than $1 million in Denver and more than $500,000 in each of the other races -- doesn’t just happen. It is the result of powerful forces at work: Local discontent with school board policies fuels grassroots activism. Powerful business interests put their influence behind a slate of candidates, or local political parties add their weight to the contest. Or wealthy individuals and outside political advocacy groups step forward with a helping hand.

News of three such politically dynamic and costly races sparked endless speculation. Was the Tea Party flexing its political muscle? Were ideologically driven groups seeking to control school boards and put their stamp on local education policy? Were the races a sign that the partisan battles for state and political office were starting to trickle down to the local level?

The truth is, no one knows. Political observers say there’s just not enough evidence of trends at work in school board races.

Still, they note, the dynamics of the three elections have enough in common to be worthy of attention. After all, in a political environment in which money, partisanship, ideology, and fiery rhetoric play increasingly prominent roles at the state and national levels, who can say what the future holds for local elections?

“Quite clearly, education at the local level has come into –sharper focus,” says Michael Resnick, NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy. “It wouldn’t be surprising if the political activity we see at the national level -- groups supporting national policies tied to specific education agendas -- may be trickling down to specific elections ... and elections begin to take on more of the appearance of elections for other offices. That’s the way elections work. People are free to put up their money to support their causes.”

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