By Madelynn Coldiron
The 2012 local school board elections didn’t reach “throw the bums out” levels, but they did demonstrate in some quarters how hot-button issues can drive the outcome.
A total of 77 challenged incumbents – 19 percent – lost their re-election bids, compared with 14.5 percent who did not win re-election in 2008 and 12 percent in 2004, the last comparable cycles. In all, 145 new members will be taking a seat on 97 school boards – a little over half of those faced opposition other than incumbents.
While incumbent losses are a few notches higher, 77 school boards will see no change at all in their makeup, consistent with the number four years ago.
Two points were apparent to Brad Hughes, who has written about local school board elections for 38 years as KSBA’s director of member support/communications services and previously as a journalist.
“In the case of virtually every ousted incumbent whose race we knew something about, one of three factors was at play – a tax hike vote, a facility dispute or a controversy involving district leadership,” Hughes said. “One or more of those issues publicly bubbled to the surface leading up to election day in the vast majority of those races.
“But it’s also fairly apparent that anytime you have eight in every 10 incumbents who draw opposition but are re-elected, voters by and large feel very confident that the people sitting on school boards across Kentucky are doing a good job despite the challenges of the job,” he said.
What made this election’s outcomes a bit different, at least statistically, is an increase in the number of multiple losses on the same board. In 2008, six school boards lost two incumbent members; this year, that figure was up to 16. Similarly, there was a clean sweep – three incumbents lost – in five districts this year, compared with just two in 2008.
McCracken County school board Chairman Neil Archer said opposition to the district’s new consolidated high school likely was a major factor in his defeat, but he also sees a larger pattern emerging for school board members statewide.
“If you look at what we’ve gone through – if nothing more than Senate Bill 1 in the last year and a half, there were a lot of changes in that and there were a lot of kids that came up on the radar that were less than stellar students with the new testing than there was before. And I think some parents don’t react well when you tell them their kids aren’t doing well.
“We’ve had more issues in the schools than probably two or three years ago we didn’t have,” he said, from the new testing system to new, more nutritious offerings in cafeterias. “There’s just more issues going on.”
But not every race was won or lost on new or emerging issues. In Menifee County, where there was a clean sweep of three incumbents, Chairwoman Phyllis Lawson said a stock issue for school boards – a difference of opinion about the superintendent’s performance – was a factor.
“I just hope for the best for the schools and the kids,” said Lawson, who will be leaving office with 26 years of experience.
In LaRue County, Chairman Ronnie Chelf, who lost his bid for a fifth term by 46 votes, said the roots of the local issues that brought about his defeat go back many years. But still, he said, “It kind of shocked me.”
Statewide, the casualties included more than a half-dozen board members, like Lawson, with more than 20 years’ experience. The list includes Leawood Cornett, Clay County, 26 years; Ned Davis, Clinton County, 29 years; Becky Burgett, Gallatin County, 22 years; Luther Mason, Scott County, 24 years; Bill Wethington, Walton-Verona, 24 years; James Nance, Webster County, 24 years; Michael Waller, Henderson County, 23 years (over two stints).
It wasn’t all change, however. In Madison and Oldham counties, where all four incumbents were running opposed, only one – a Madison County board member – was defeated. In two other districts with especially controversial races, it was a different story. Two of three incumbents lost in Mason County – one of them to one of the last-minute write-in candidates who surfaced after a highly critical state audit. And in Scott County, where talk swirled of an alleged FBI investigation, two of three incumbents failed to win re-election.
Besides the more garden-variety local ad hoc “citizens groups” that tried to influence local board elections, the 2012 general election saw the entry of a group that formed to counter the effect of teachers’ unions in school board races. Organizers began with Jefferson County and said they hoped to eventually expand statewide.
l At press time, no arrests had been made in connection with the theft of all campaign signs belonging to the three Middlesboro Independent incumbents – all of whom lost.
l There was one tied election, in McCreary County, between an incumbent and challenger. A recount was under way at press time.
l Local newspaper editor Gary Ball, who in the past challenged the Martin County district over access to records, unseated incumbent Clifford Keener. Another incumbent also was defeated.
l Not one, but two former superintendents will become school board members in January. Steve McKnight, a former Marshall County schools chief, was unopposed for a seat on the Owensboro Independent board, while Larry Woods, who has served most recently as superintendent in Lincoln County and currently as an interim in Breathitt County, defeated an incumbent to win election to the Garrard County school board.
lThere was a head-scratcher in the Newport Independent district, where the candidate who drew the most votes for a seat for an unexpired term had withdrawn from the race after ballots were printed. The incumbent placed third.
l Octogenarian Shirley Treadway will continue his streak, winning re-election to the Barbourville Independent school board and starting his 53rd year of service.