No more North Korean school board elections

I gritted my teeth in 2013 listening to the mayoral candidates fight over who was best for the schools. They’re not the elected officials with primary responsibility: school board members are. Yet I’ll bet most Minneapolitans couldn’t name their own district rep, or any of the three at-large members.

Heading into the 2014 elections, Southwest will only vote for two at-large members of the nine-member board. Journal readers east of 35W will also get to vote for their district seat.

Let’s hope these races don’t repeat 2012’s clown show. Southwest is a hotbed of school activism/anxiety/obsession, but voters in southern District 6 found just one candidate on the general-election ballot. This North Korean state of affairs resulted when three challengers dropped out within days of the filing deadline. This was almost true in the northern District 4, too; labor-friendly forces scrambled at the last minute to find a competitor after the city disqualified their champion under the federal Hatch Act.

This isn’t meant to slag 2012’s winners. School board member is the city’s worst elected job, with salary around $10,000 for all the grief you can stomach governing a high-stakes educational system that is also a critical social-service safety net expected to rectify society’s manifest inequalities. Anyone who runs deserves respect for plunging in.

But the absurd dollars-to-grief ratio is one reason why school board races often fail to attract a critical mass of candidates. Is it any wonder why Don Samuels — the most passionate school reformer in the 2013 mayoral field, helping him finish third — hasn’t declared for a logical alternative, a 2014 board seat?

Crappy pay limits the field to those with the personal finances to swing it. Compare 2012’s open school board races to the current open race for Southwest’s Hennepin County Commissioner. At least five candidates, many experienced in government, are already running for a job that pays close to $100,000 (and offers high-backed thrones for commissioner meetings!).

I can hear some of you muttering “But Hennepin County is a full-time job and we need to spend every last school dime on the kids. I don’t want to spend a million bucks on a nine-member board.” The phrase “penny-wise, pound-foolish” comes to mind; for example, the foolishness voters might’ve felt when right after the 2012 election a majority of the incoming board signed a letter on teacher’s union stationary.

For the purposes of this column, I don’t want to take a side in the unions-versus-reformers battle that erupted in District 4 two years ago. Fewer quality candidates mean a greater likelihood of union toadies and courtiers to wealthy reform interests.

If we’re going to keep the school board a part-time job, at least peg pay to another underpaid, high-stakes part-time gig: legislator. I’m not sure $31,140 per year (excluding per-diem) is proper pay for governing an organization that spends half a billion dollars a year, but it’s a start.

Higher pay might help with the candidate supply, but it won’t solve all the problems, of course. Powerful forces remain powerful, and a pay raise won’t necessarily force from the woodwork a candidate bold enough to finance a run independent of union or reform-Rolodex dollars.

And of course, a lot of this is on us. Even voters who grumble about their property taxes or their schools or unions or charters don’t pay enough attention to the August primary, when the field is winnowed to a non-partisan two in district races or four in this year’s at-large. (School board races aren’t ranked-choice-voting, by the way.) Unlike other governmental spheres, we simply don’t make the connection between school shortcomings and district governance. In a year when governor, U.S. Senator and state House also crowd the ballot, it will be that much harder to get attention.

Still, as we saw with the mayor’s race, a livelier field boosted turnout to its highest in 12 years. If we make school board a fairer job, I’d bet candidates will give us more reasons to tune in.

David Brauer is a former Journal editor who lives in Kingfield, where he chaired the neighborhood association and farmers market boards. Find him on Twitter @dbrauer.