“I don’t pay much attention to these elections. I don’t think it makes any difference, really.”
That was part of a conversation I overheard, relating to a recent meet-the candidates forum.
Someone else said, “All the big decisions are made in Harrisburg.”
The first speaker agreed, adding, “Or Washington.”
Later I kept thinking about those remarks, and the perceptions they reveal. I think lots of people share those views.
One indication is the light voter turn-outs we have for many local elections. Another is the fact that many eligible persons are not registered to vote.
Local elections don’t make any difference? Well, maybe in the sense that in the case of the school board election, there are five seats to be filled and five candidates in the field. We can be pretty sure those five people will be elected.
Why didn’t more people run for school board? One person who had said he wanted to run told me later that he had not kept track of when the nominating petitions had to be circulated, and so had failed to pick them up and circulate them until too late. “I was thinking the primary election is later,” he said.
Someone else said that school boards “don’t have any real say, because the administration calls all the shots, and the state dictates what schools have to do.”
Again, I think that perception is wrong. Yes, there are those pesky unfunded mandates. And there is a great big lump of expenditure that has to be in the annual school budget—debt service. Some years it is the third largest spending item, right after regular education and special education. This year it is the second largest item, before special education.
Debt service is like a mortgage payment: you have to do it. Bond issues are borrowing—not exactly like mortgages, of course, and not secured in the same way. But the consequences of defaulting on bonds are not something a school board could contemplate with equanimity.
So this school board, and for that matter the successor board as it will be constituted come next December, would not have the option of not making bond payments. Also board cannot scrap the labor agreements it “inherits.” It cannot change alternative education or networking agreements that still have years to go, or decide to serve cheaper school lunches or eliminate personnel who are necessary for carrying out modifications to the educational programs of children with IEPs.
But it was our local school board that decided on those multi-million-dollar projects, those bond issues, those contracts. Unlike safety and nutrition measures decreed by the state, those decisions were made right here.
Those and many other items are cast in concrete. But there are some items where cuts can be made—and this year is one when the Pennsylvania Department of Education is likely to grant requests from districts to eliminate some course offerings, or so we hear.
Once a course is added, which is not hard to do on the local board’s initiative, it can be very hard to subtract it later, as a rule. So what is a poor, helpless school board to do?
Ours has been a remarkably compliant board, for years. Seldom is there even one dissenting vote on any measure. Nor is there much discussion. It’s like home on the range, where seldom is heard a discouraging word.
A sign of a wonderfully united board, genteel and polite, its members too dignified or “nice” to ask embarrassing questions or disagree with their fellow school directors? Or, as some board members have indicated to me, more a matter of anything approaching knock-down, drag-out happening in those executive (closed door) sessions?
As it happens, very large spending decisions are made locally, after all. Not only did some recent set of school board members, most of whom are still on the board, lock in this current board and all boards for years to come to budget every year for that huge debt service payment. That board’s decision also was binding on the state, which is on the hook to kick in its agreed share of the annual bond payments. Reverse mandate—all right!
The size and scope of the elementary school upgrade, like the size and scope of the junior-senior high school renovation a few years earlier, were determined by local school board members. They molded the development of those projects, both of which grew like Topsy throughout the planning process, starting at a modest-sounding figure and ending up millions of dollars higher.
The school board has a great deal to say about the quality of local education and about school programs and finances—and about local taxes.
The borough and township governments impact our lives very directly and strongly. The county government does so as well, operating all the services we expect from the county. Roads, bridges, garbage, recycling, law enforcement, fire protection, sewerage, emergency management, child protection, deed registry.
And courts! The local “DeeJay” court, and the county court (common pleas, orphans court)—we get to elect the judges. In the case of the latter, those are ten-year terms, so when you pull the lever, you are making a 10-year choice. For township supervisor, a six-year one.
It does make a difference who is on the school board, the board of commissioners or supervisors, the district and county court benches. If you are registered, vote on May 17. Some of these primary votes will decide, here and now, who will be in office come December or January.