Unwelcome plan to politicize school boards


(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

The spin was subtle, but significant, in a Republican announcement of a proposed bill to end Indiana’s long history of nonpartisan school board elections.

A news release from the Indiana House Republicans said, “State Rep. Alan Morrison (R-Brazil) authored legislation that would boost transparency in Hoosier school board elections by allowing candidates to declare a party affiliation.”

So, it apparently would “allow” folks wanting to serve on their local school board – already one of the most thankless jobs in public service – to declare a political party affiliation. They could, at last, fully join in the wonderful world of partisan politics, circa 2023, where each side demonizes the other, acceptance of ideas from the opposite party is forbidden by party bosses, and no proposal moves forward without approval up the chain of party command.

“Allow” sounds optional.

Actually, that is not how the bill reads. House Bill 1074 “provides that for school board offices, each candidate’s affiliation with a political party or status as an independent candidate must be stated on a petition of nomination and on the ballot.”

The proposed law would, in reality, force people wanting to serve on their local school boards to decide to wear the party label of “Republican,” “Democrat” or “Libertarian” unless they choose no party and run as an independent. The predominance of Hoosier school board members who are not overtly political would have to get overtly political, or go it alone as an independent.

And, how often do independent candidates – who have no party endorsements or support – win partisan elections in Indiana? Rarely.

Instead, the plan to immerse local schools in party politics is meant to give the ruling political party even more control over Hoosiers’ lives. This scheme is pitched under a shiny, expedient coating of “empowering parents,” but it is really aimed at forcing school board members to carry out the state and national party leadership’s outrage-issue-of-the-month to win elections. Kids receive a weakened education as a result.

Party officials would probe candidates even after they declared a party. Under the proposed law, candidates must have selected a ballot from their declared party in the two most recent primaries. If not, the county’s party chairman must certify a candidate’s declaration. Again, it is about control.

The party controlling the local school board also can then influence hiring decisions. A Republican dominated board could choose not to approve contracts for teachers, coaches, principals, counselors and staff members they suspect to be Democrats, and vice versa. The divisive, us-versus-them mess that stagnates Congress would unfold in the community school, sucking up the oxygen and energy that should be devoted to efficient, thoughtful, day-to-day operations.

The most recent election in Vigo County itself refutes the bogus claim that attaching a “R,” “D” or “L” to a school board candidate’s name provides better information to voters than the nonpartisan system. Voters in November’s election closely scrutinized the 14 nonpartisan candidates on the ballot to get their takes on last year’s turned-down school construction referendum and other issues. Candidate forums were heavily attended, too. Party labels would have added nothing helpful and only blurred the pertinent information.

Those are the reasons that only four states force candidates to wear party labels in school board elections. Indiana should not join that list.