Pocketbook issues drive heated contests in school board races
A controversial building project, questions about assessment appeals and a long-stalled teachers’ contract are among the issues driving public engagement in heated school board races in Tuesday’s primary.
It’s not unusual for school board ballots to draw few candidates and scarce attention from voters. Given that candidates in such races can and often do cross-file on the Democratic and Republican ballots and that the posts are unpaid, they are rarely seen as a jumping-off point for those seeking higher office.
That cuts both ways, said David Chambers, chair of the political science department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is you don’t have to worry about that label. Absent a label, many people don’t know what you stand for. Then it becomes based on issues, which might be a good thing in every election,” he said.
Without hot-button issues and the possibility of political gain, however, it’s often tough to recruit candidates to run in contested races for school board, said Gerald Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh professor of political rhetoric and longtime participant in local politics.
Races like those in the Burrell, New Kensington-Arnold, Southmoreland and Penn-Trafford school districts, where 12 candidates for 12 seats face no opposition, are the norm.
In one Burrell School District race with two seats open, Thomas Deiseroth is the sole candidate on the ballot.
“Sometimes, it’s almost as though you have to go to the cemetery,” Shuster said.
But that isn’t the case this spring in several districts with crowded ballots where primary campaigns have become heated contests.
In the Franklin Regional School District, where the school board last year approved a $54 million plan to renovate the Sloan Elementary School and build a new one nearby on Sardis Road, 13 candidates are running to fill six seats.
A prolonged negotiation for a new teachers’ contract has split the Mt. Pleasant community and drawn 12 candidates seeking five school board seats.
And in Hempfield, where the district challenged assessments on several residential properties last year, 11 candidates stepped up to vie for five seats.
“When this happens, the driver for the most part is local economics, pocketbook issues,” Shuster said.
“Each one of the issues have been trigger issues in the past that literally reached into people’s pocketbooks and spurred interest in the race. When that happens, more people will vote and more people will run,” Chambers said.
Those issues are felt more keenly in Pennsylvania than in some states because, while the per-student cost for public education here is higher than the national average, the state’s share of the bill for public education — about 37 percent, compared with 47 percent on average elsewhere — is among the lowest in the nation. That leaves local property owners to pick up a larger share of school costs.
When public concern focuses on economic issues, it can spur candidates to step forward with creative ideas to improve public schools within the confines they face, said Susan Spicka, a Shippensburg school board member who also is CEO of Education Voters of PA, a statewide nonprofit public education advocacy group.
While that may be the case, yet another factor could be driving political engagement in local races this year, Penn State political science professor Michael Berkman speculated.
“This is a period of high political engagement,” Berkman said. “We saw a record number of political candidates in 2018. It could be that it filtered down, that people are energized and they see that school boards are an important place to start.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .