Fewer incumbents returning, but replacements plentiful
Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
It’s been 20-plus years since so few incumbent Kentucky school board members have filed for re-election, but it may be too soon to read any deep meaning into the data, at least based on a spot check of non-returnees.
Their reasons for not seeking re-election are diverse, ranging from their health to family obligations to discord on their boards. From his vantage point as the state’s longest-serving school board member, Gene Allen, chairman of the East Bernstadt Independent district, says the job also has gotten more complicated. “There’s a lot more pressure to worry with and be concerned about,” along with more mandated training, the 50-year veteran said.
“We have too much dictated to us, federal and state dictates that are unfunded and that fall on the board members’ laps and makes us the bad guy. That’s the one thing that bothers me,” said 20-year veteran Wayne Gosser, chairman of the Russell County board. That’s not the main reason he didn’t file for re-election, though. He cited his health and his desire to “to take up grandpawing.”
“I’m not disgruntled or mad at anybody or anything,” Gosser added.
In this election year, when most county boards are filling three seats and most independent boards two, just 76 percent of incumbents filed for re-election, compared with 86 percent in the last comparable cycle in 2012. The two county, three independent seat 2014 election cycle, when 78 percent of incumbents filed, may have been the beginning of a downward trend.
In 1994, the first year the Kentucky School Advocate began logging this data, 76 percent of incumbents filed for re-election, a percentage that was duplicated two years later before rising to 78 percent in 1998. Then, from 2000 through 2012, the incumbent filing percentage ranged from 81 percent to 86 percent.
The lower 2016 percentage also should be weighed against a measure of general interest in the job, which has been yo-yoing in recent election cycles but is back up. This year, 274 new candidates filed, either for an open school board seat or against an incumbent. That compares with 247 in 2014 and 288 in the 2012 election cycle.
Joe Samuel, a Hickman County board member who has served 20 years in two separate stints, said it was time to cede his post to someone else. “It just needs some fresh young blood, with maybe some new ideas,” he said. “Everything has been running real smooth and to me, it was just time to come home, tend to business and let somebody else worry about it.”
Still, he promises to keep up with the school district. “I’ll show up and argue with them if I need to,” he laughed.
Reasons and regrets
The decision to not run for re-election was not made without regret for some. Joyce Baker, who will be completing a single term on the Covington Independent board after serving the district 36 years as a teacher, said she did not file again for reasons of “a personal nature.”
But, she said, “I just feel so strongly about Covington being successful and I think we’re on the right track. My heart is still there, I would love to do it, but for personal reasons I’m going in a different direction.”
Cloverport Independent school board Chairwoman Lisa Hawley says she feels “a lot of guilt” in not seeking re-election because she has learned so much about education, especially Kentucky education.
“There’s a lot to learn and over the past two, three or four years, I’ve learned so much more,” she said. “I feel like I finally got to the point to where – you never know everything – but I feel like I’m fairly comfortable with my knowledge base or if I don’t know something, I can get the information fairly quickly.”
Hawley, who has served 12 years, said several reasons played into her decision to not seek another term, including her health, the stress of the position and her youngest child graduating from high school.
Some non-returning incumbents mentioned time as a factor. Somerset Independent board member Jeff Perkins said an increasing amount of time spent on family issues kept him from seeking a second term. A former principal and coach in the district, Perkins said devotion to the school system is “my lifetime passion.”
“The time spent on the board, the hours of preparation, of material to read, that’s just a part of it,” he said. “For me, that was just a joy of being on there.”
Another one-termer, Gallatin County board member Alex Tainsh, also cited time as one reason in his decision. He travels a lot in his job as vice president of an automotive company group and is the father of triplets.
But, Tainsh added, “My biggest reason was discord among the board members … It was a very stressful situation. Career and kids, it became not worth the stress.”
He added he feels he is leaving the district “better than I found it,” and with more community support for the system.
That’s also a consolation for Bath County board member Shelly Sanders, who called her four years of service “challenging but rewarding.”
“Our goal was to bring the focus back on the kids and bring respect back to the school and I feel like we have accomplished that,” she said. Sanders, a nurse manager, has been attending school part-time and will graduate in December as a nurse practitioner. She is not running for re-election because she anticipates a new career path will require more time and she is not sure where new job opportunities will take her.
Monroe County board member Toby Chapman cited his work as one factor in leaving the board after two terms. “My daughter graduated and my term is up,” he said. “I run a business and really don’t have time, so I gave it up.”
He is not exactly nostalgic about leaving, however. “Everybody complains and it’s always about sports. It’s never about something that really needs to be complained about,” Chapman said. Still, he would not discourage anyone from running for a school board seat: “I’ve always said everybody needs to sit one term on the school board.”