Trustee races: Sleepy, or transformative?

It may be an afterthought for many voters, but Tuesday is an election day across Idaho.

Voters in many school districts will elect trustees — that is, in communities where candidates have filed for the volunteer positions. All too often, School Board races are cancelled for a lack of candidates.

Still, some districts have relatively heated elections ahead on Tuesday. And the state’s teacher’s union is using some strong words to describe the importance of trustee elections — saying they can reshape the political landscape on the local level.

Sleepy races — with some hotspots

While legislators play a high-profile role of dictating state education policy, trustees play a critical role at the local level. For example, the 2015 Legislature passed and funded the first phase of the $125 million career ladder, but the job of implementation falls to districts and trustees. School boards have myriad local responsibilities — from budgeting and labor negotiations to student discipline and, occasionally, deciding whether to keep a controversial novel on a required reading list.

But there are marked differences between School Board and legislative campaigns. Legislative elections are decided in even-year general elections — or in party primaries in May. The partisan nature of legislative elections drives up interest and voter turnout. Trustee elections are held in May, in odd-year elections, when no federal, state or county races are on the ballot. Save for the occasional school bond issue or supplemental levy, or local spending measure, School Board races are the only game in town.

Legislators noted the low-key nature of School Board elections earlier this year — as they passed a law requiring future trustee candidates to identify campaign donors. (The law is not in effect for this month’s elections.) Lawmakers granted an exemption for districts with fewer than 500 students, since rural districts often struggle to find candidates.

Interest in trustees’ races can vary widely from community to community, as the Twin Falls Times-News reported in late March. In Twin Falls, Jerome and Cassia County, incumbents are running unopposed, and a few seats have drawn no candidates. But in the beleaguered Gooding School District — where two superintendents resigned within a 13-month period between January 2014 and February — seven candidates are vying for three seats.

Treasure Valley: Full ballots, familiar names

Voters in several Treasure Valley districts will have crowded ballots to pore over next week — and a number of names they’ve probably seen before. Here are some of the highlights.

West Ada: Eight candidates are vying for three board seats in the state’s largest school district.

Gregory Deitchler, Rosemary DeMond, Russell Joki and Louis Pifher are vying for an open trustee’s seat. Pifher served on the School Board from 2002 to 2007. Joki is best known for taking the state and the district to court over student athletic and activity fees. Joki contends the fees violate the state Constitution.

Earlier this week, the Idaho Statesman reported that an Oregon state commission reprimanded Joki in 1999 for his handling of a teacher and volunteer coach who gave alcohol to students. A year later, Joki resigned as a district superintendent in Oregon in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint.

Two veteran incumbents face challengers.

Anne Ritter, first elected to the board in 2002, touts the district’s efforts to offer more dual enrollment and advanced courses to a growing student population — even though the district was forced to cut spending during the recession. Her opponent, Julie Madsen, a physician at the Boise VA Medical Center, actively campaigned against Propositions 1, 2 and 3 in 2012. Even with the passage of a $96 million bond issue in March, she said, “The West Ada District and its trustees need to actively manage and plan for the growth that is occurring, which has now reached pre-recession levels.”

Mike Vuittonet, a 14-year trustee, is pointing to his School Board experience and a list of endorsements, including House Majority Leader Mike Moyle and Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd. His opponent, Christine Bitler Whited, also questions the district’s long-term strategy for growth. “Schools are not being built large enough to accommodate the growth of Meridian and its growing families,” she said in response to a Meridian Press candidate questionnaire.

Nampa: Two incumbents each face a pair of opponents. In Zone 1, incumbent Joca Veloz faces Mandy Simpson and Jac Webb; Zone 2 incumbent Daren Coon faces Isaac Moffett and Janelle Stauffer.

The district is two years removed from a lingering financial crisis that forced furlough days, the outsourcing of custodial services and the closure of a grade school — and as Bill Roberts of the Idaho Statesman reported recently, the aftershocks of the financial crisis are a key theme in these races. Simpson had a unique vantage point to the crisis; in 2013, she was president of the local teachers’ union during a lengthy and sometimes contentious contract negotiation process.

Caldwell: Three incumbents face challenges next week: Board chair Charles Stout faces Don Atkinson; trustee Thomas Briten faces Toni Waters; and vice chair Sandra Dodson faces Travis Manning. A Vallivue High School English teacher, Manning ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2012 and 2014.

Altering the political landscape?

A report from the Idaho Education Association’s April delegate assembly speaks to the significance of next week’s elections.

“Nearly every school district in Idaho will conduct elections for two or three zone trustees that could be a factor in altering the political landscape within the district,” the IEA’s government relations committee and Political Action Committee for Education said in a report. “The Government Relations/Political Action Committee for Education has met and will continue to meet to build upon 2014 election accomplishments and determine how the IEA can positively influence local elections at the district level.”

What does that mean?

The IEA gets involved in trustee races at the request of local unions — and has been asked to help on about a half dozen races, IEA President Penni Cyr said this week. The IEA won’t identify these races.

The IEA’s involvement is limited to offering advice or answering questions. “We don’t give money to school board candidates at all,” Cyr said. “It’s not something we’re involved in.”

Also watching, from a distance, is the Idaho Democratic Party.

After a citizens’ committee said Coeur d’Alene trustees should pull John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” from the district’s reading list, the Democrats weighed in on their website. “Idaho school board elections are May 19 –and they are very important. We can thank the members of a book review committee for the Coeur d’Alene School District for putting an exclamation point on that fact.”

The state party is encouraging its members to vote, but is not weighing in on races.

“The (Idaho Democratic Party) believes nonpartisan elections should be nonpartisan,” spokesman Dean Ferguson said. “Any candidates who would seek endorsement, would be doing it through their local parties and not the state party.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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