Analysis: Boise’s sleepy trustee elections could be a relic of the past

A lot has changed since September 2020, when Boise’s last school board elections were a snoozer.

The uproar over school pandemic policies has only intensified. A national furor over indoctrination and critical race theory has spilled into Idaho. And across much of the state, the 2021 school board elections became more contentious and costly, taking on partisan overtones.

These larger trends could reshape Boise’s elections. Regardless of who wins on Sept. 6, Boise’s sleepy school board election could be a relic of the past.

That is, if voters are engaged enough to show up.

Then and now: this year’s burgeoning ballot

Two years ago, the Boise district was flooded with more than 800 comments about its pandemic back-to-school plan — split almost equally between parents who wanted in-person learning and parents who preferred virtual learning. Trustees voted to start the year virtually.

But then, on Sept. 1, incumbents Nancy Gregory and Dennis Doan easily won six-year terms, swamping their lone challenger. (The three candidates appeared on a single ballot, with the top two vote-getters elected.) Turnout was a paltry 6.1%.

It’s a whole different ballot this time, partly because of attrition.

Boise State University professor Troy Rohn resigned in September 2020, lamenting the “untenable situation” facing trustees in the midst of a global health crisis. Doan, who was also Boise’s fire chief, left the board in March 2021 when he took an out-of-state job. Alicia Estey stepped down in October — citing her growing workload as Boise State’s chief of staff, but also noting the increasingly complex job facing trustees.

Their three appointed replacements — Elizabeth Langley, Andy Hawes and Steve Schmidt — are all running next month, hoping to complete the remaining time on their terms. Meanwhile, incumbents David Wagers and Beth Oppenheimer are up for re-election, seeking six-year terms.

And all told, eight challengers are taking on the incumbents.

Who’s running for Boise School Board?

Race #1 (two six-year terms, top two vote-getters elected): Krista Hasler, Beth Oppenheimer, Dave Wagers, Greg Woodard.

Race #2 (one four-year term): Andy Hawes, Neil “Gnome” Mercer, Matthew Shapiro.

Race #3 (one two-year term): Nate Dean. Dawn King. Todd Kurowski, Elizabeth Langley.

Race #4 (one two-year term): Shiva Rajbhandari, Steve Schmidt.

Five races, 13 candidates. And the ballot could have been even more packed. Five other challengers — all aligned with The Well, a Boise church — withdrew from the race, after filing paperwork.

A referendum on the status quo

There’s no pigeonholing the eight challengers: two military retirees, two former teachers, an attorney, a licensed clinical social worker, a renewable energy company CEO and a rising Boise High School senior.

But there is one unifying thread. Several challengers say the current school board is operating in a bubble, and not slowing down to listen.

This came up repeatedly Tuesday, during a series of Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce virtual candidate forums Tuesday, co-sponsored by Idaho EdNews. At one point, the four candidates for the two six-year board terms all said they supported Boise’s move to all-day kindergarten. But while incumbents Wagers and Oppenheimer said the move was years in the making — after trustees heard from numerous parents clamoring for all-day kinder — challengers Greg Woodard and Krista Hasler said trustees sprang the move on parents and staff with little notice.

Todd Kurowski, a candidate for a two-year term, says Boise is losing enrollment because the district treats its parents like its “least valued customer.” (The incumbents blame the enrollment declines on a superheated housing market, which is driving families out of the city.)

Shiva Rajbhhandari, the Boise High student, says the district’s $500,000-plus marketing and promotion plan has failed to boost enrollment, because the district is failing to listen to students.

Incumbents Langley and Schmidt don’t disagree, saying the board needs to do a better job of explaining its process. Hawes, meanwhile, says the pandemic put the board in the unenviable position of explaining polarizing, no-win decisions. “I felt the public simply misunderstood the reasoning or thought process behind board decisions.”

Money, endorsements — and one more variable

The pandemic and CRT/indoctrination blowback played prominently in Idaho’s 2021 school board elections. Turnout surged, and voters ousted 21 of the 47 incumbents running in contested races — sometimes turning to well-financed newcomers with ties to the Republican Party.

Unlike most districts, which hold trustee elections in conjunction with municipal races, Boise goes it alone. Under a governing charter that predates statehood, the state’s second-largest district holds its elections in September in even-numbered years.

Now, it’s Boise’s turn.

It’s too early to tell how spendy (or not spendy) these elections will be. Sunshine reports are just now trickling in. And if last November’s school board elections are any guide, voters won’t get many of the numbers until long after they elect a slate of trustees.

A couple of early numbers:

  • Wagers has already reported $16,853 in contributions, including $1,000 apiece from former Boise trustee and gubernatorial candidate A J Balukoff and his wife, Susie.
  • Oppenheimer has raised $14,959, with money coming from a wide political cross-section. State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich has kicked in $500, while former Boise superintendent Don Coberly and Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry head Alex LaBeau have contributed $100 apiece. Oppenheimer has also received money from seven current or former Boise-area Democratic legislators.
  • Rajbhandari has raised the most money among the challengers, at $4,293.

Then there are endorsements, or not-quite endorsements.

In this referendum on Boise’s status quo, one stakeholder group wants to stay the course. The Boise Education Association, the district’s teacher’s union, has endorsed the five incumbents.

And while school board elections are nonpartisan, the Ada County Republican Party is weighing in. The GOP’s voter guide includes written responses from five of the challengers, and spaces for responses from three of the incumbents. The remaining five candidates — Wagers, Oppenheimer, Rajbhandari, Matthew Shapiro and Dawn King — aren’t mentioned on the GOP website, and weren’t invited to answer questions. The reason: The five are not registered Republicans.

“We wouldn’t put the Democrats in our Republican voter guide,” county GOP Chairman Victor Miller said.

But unlike the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee — which actively endorsed school board candidates last fall — Miller said the Ada County GOP will not follow suit. The party will simply publish responses it receives from registered Republicans.

Campaign fundraising and spending and third-party activity could stir up some buzz around the Boise trustee elections. But inertia remains a strong political force.

The Boise school board elections stand alone. There will be nothing else on the ballot next month. Absentee ballots are already going on, and early voting begins at district headquarters on Aug. 22, or voters can go to their neighborhood school on Sept. 6, the Tuesday after Labor Day.

The last time Boise held a trustee election the day after Labor Day was 2018. Turnout was an abysmal 3.7% — even lower than the measly 2020 turnout.

School board election politics are changing.

Boise’s voter-unfriendly calendar hasn’t.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 

Learn more here: Watch this week’s virtual candidate forums, co-sponsored by Idaho EdNews, read forum coverage from our friends at the Idaho Press, and read candidate responses to Idaho EdNews’ questionnaire.

 

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "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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