It’s been six years, which is more than long enough to fairly ask what good making Lee County’s school board elections partisan has done for anybody.
When Friend of the Rant and former state Rep. Mike Stone passed a law in 2013 changing the way we elect our local board of education members, most people probably went on with their lives. But a story we published on our website last month paints the clearest picture yet of why it was such a bad idea — and why it should be reversed.
In case you missed it, we obtained documents showing that the Lee County Republican Party in January sought to punish one of its own elected officials — school board member Dr. Stephen Coble — over accusations of “party disloyalty” and “gross inefficiency.” There was apparently like, a trial and everything. Silly. Laughable, even.
For Coble — a former private school administrator who I’ve only ever met briefly but who seems pretty popular across the political spectrum — the great crime was breaking ranks with some of his fellow Republicans to elect a Democratic board chairman, award an architecture contract, and extend the employment agreement of the school district’s superintendent.
You can agree or disagree with the votes, but the board’s chairmanship aside, it’s more than a stretch to argue that any of these are partisan issues. “How and when to award an architecture contract” does not appear in either of the major party platforms.
School board politics are unique because they touch every person with a child, regardless of how interested they are in Republicans and Democrats. Most of these people are far more interested in whether candidates will do what they think is best for students and families as they oversee the administration of a school district than whether they’ll follow the lead of un-elected party bosses who won’t tolerate independent thinking.
This is why it’s easy to say Stone made a huge miscalculation in pushing his bill behind the rationale that seeing an R or a D next to a candidate’s name would give voters more information about the candidates. But Coble’s example — which isn’t even the first of its kind — shows how flawed that logic is. Not only did the R next to his name not offer his party’s leadership what they thought it did, he also probably benefited from more than a few Democratic votes because his relationships with voters in Lee County have been about something far more important to them than party affiliation.
Speaking of party affiliation, the law has made it much harder for an unaffiliated candidate to even get on the ballot at all. As of this writing, a person who identifies with neither party would be required to obtain nearly 1,500 local signatures, a hurdle a Republican or a Democrat just wouldn’t face.
Lee County’s delegation in the General Assembly is different than it was in 2013, but it still consists of two Republicans. Rep. John Sauls and Sen. Jim Burgin might face censure or some other punishment from the local party if they introduce legislation making school board elections non-partisan again, but it’s exactly what they should do.
Gordon Anderson once ran for school board as a member of the long-forgotten Whig party back in the early 1920s. A misunderstanding of the term “Whig” led to some unfortunate campaign photos and an embarrassing incident at a debate. Needless to say, he won by a large margin.