The changing face of school board politics

Mike Vuittonet didn’t set out to run for school board.

He was recruited by Christine Donnell, the district’s superintendent, who happened to live on the other side of a neighborhood creek. He ran, unopposed. That was in 2001 — before the Meridian School District became the West Ada School District, and before the West Ada school board was consumed by drama and discord.

Mike Vuittonet
Mike Vuittonet

Certainly, what happened in West Ada reflects personalities. Former Superintendent Linda Clark says trustees forced her off the job — a claim trustees dispute. Vuittonet has frequently found himself sparring with other trustees, and this week, former trustee Russell Joki called Vuittonet “a liar of the biggest order.”

But the tenor of school board politics and the nature of school board elections are changing as well. And not just in West Ada, the state’s largest and most scrutinized school district. Two trustees were recalled in Caldwell last year, and recent school board races in Boise and Coeur d’Alene have taken on an edgy tone.

And changes at the state level could reshape the terrain of trustee races.

Following the money … or not

For years, candidates for volunteer school board seats ran in elections that were nonpartisan and often downright sleepy. If there was any money to follow in trustee elections, there was no way to follow it. School board candidates were not required to file campaign finance reports.

That was still the case for the May 2015 elections — when Vuittonet was re-elected, Joki won an open race and challenger Julie Madsen unseated longtime West Ada trustee Anne Ritter. The 2015 Legislature had passed a financial disclosure law for school board races, but the law did not go into effect until July 2015.

Without a paper trail, however, there is no way to get around claims and counterclaims.

Vuittonet contends the Idaho Education Association campaigned against him and for Joki and Madsen.

“I believe they were involved, and it’s their absolute right to get involved,” he said. “I believe West Ada was in their sights.”

Penni Cyr
Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association

IEA president Penni Cyr disputed Vuittonet’s account. She said the IEA provided “minimal resources and guidance” to local union officials.

“The IEA does not take positions or action on local school board races,” Cyr said. “Our local associations are entirely responsible for determining what, if any, involvement they would like to take in local elections such as bonds, supplemental levies, and school board races.”

The Legislature weighs in

School elections laws were left virtually unchanged this session, but not for a lack of proposals.

  • Several bills sought to expand campaign finance disclosure requirements. One bill would have required all trustees’ candidates to file sunshine reports; the 2015 law exempted candidates in school districts with fewer than 500 students.
  • Multiple bills tried to bring other school elections under the sunshine law — including school recall elections. This has been another point of dispute in West Ada, with opponents of the recall saying the campaign has been bankrolled by “dark money” from special interest groups. Vuittonet, a recall supporter, declined to say how much money has been raised for the campaign, or where the money came from. “There’s been enough money to wage a campaign,” he said.
  • Another bill would have moved school board elections to the November general election — where the nonpartisan trustee races would share ballot space with partisan elections for president, governor, Congress and the Legislature. The Idaho School Boards Association testified against the bill. Vuittonet supports the idea, saying it would increase voter turnout.

Retail-level politics

Tean Dean
Tina Dean, West Ada school board chair

Tina Dean, the West Ada’s school board chair, finds herself on the other side of the recall debate. On May 17, voters will decide whether to keep or recall Dean and school board colleague Carol Sayles.

She describes herself as a “common citizen” and not a politician. The former teacher said she sees the school board as a way for people to get involved in their community without entering politics — and wonders if state officials would really want to change that.

Vuittonet also sees the school board as retail-level politics.

“I don’t think there’s any elected office that has such a close relationship to the community,” he said.

But that relationship is changing — and might only be more complicated in the future.

Read more, see more, hear more

Idaho Education News and 6 On Your Side have teamed up for an in-depth, multimedia project on the West Ada School District’s past and future.

  • A tide of change and a turbulent future. Three trustees discuss the West Ada saga.
  • Kevin’s blog: An Idaho superintendent talks about his experience taking a school district through turmoil.
  • Tune in: Watch 6 On Your Side Thursday and Friday night for coverage of the West Ada story.
  • At kivitv.com: Watch our in-depth interviews with the West Ada trustees. And take a look at a detailed, multimedia West Ada timeline.
  • ‘Extra Credit:’ In our weekly podcast, Kevin Richert sits down with Michelle Edmonds of 6 On Your Side to discuss the West Ada project. Listen here.