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2018 Election

The climate may be tougher, but interest in school board service is going strong

Kentucky School Advocate
September 2018

By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
Election graphic The “war” on public education, employee pension issues, a growing funding gap, a high school transcript requirement and increased state-mandated training.

More factors than ever were at play in this election year for roughly half the state’s school board members, but judging by the data post-Aug. 14 filing deadline, they barely registered a blip. The percentage of incumbent school board members who filed for their seats in 2018 rebounded slightly from the last comparable election cycle in 2014, in which three seats generally were up on independent school boards, and two on county boards. 

In 2014, the percentage of incumbents making a bid to keep their posts dipped to 78 percent. This year? It was up to just under 81 percent. That’s more along the lines of the average registered in comparable election cycles over the past quarter-century. 

The percentage of incumbents drawing challengers this year also is in line with the historical average. Four years ago, 33 percent of incumbents drew challengers and this year, it’s nearly 31 percent.

Al Cross, political columnist and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, speculated that the pattern has been fairly stable because the school board member position is less political than it used to be, “and less likely to get into other political realms, and maybe that means their races are less influenced by outside political forces or even social forces.”

A total of 264 newcomers filed for a school board seat, though not all of them are challenging incumbents. That’s just about a dozen more nonincumbents than were on the ballot four years ago.

Cross said the attacks on public education likely did not resonate with nonincumbents as they did with sitting school board members. “My guess is most Kentuckians don’t think there is a huge attack on public education,” he said.

It might have been different had there been greater motivating factors, Cross added. “If there had been a significant policy change in the legislature, if there had been a big debate about charter schools and where the state was heading, I expect we’d have seen more people file. But there wasn’t.”

In one positive measure of interest in school board membership, the number of seats failing to attract a candidate was way down. Dayton Independent, Livingston County and Warren County each had a seat open but no candidates. That’s a far cry from four years ago, when nine districts were in that situation. The state education commissioner will be making appointments to those seats, unless there are write-in candidates.

One yardstick differed little from that of four years ago: 52 school boards will be unchanged for the next two years, as incumbents filed unopposed for re-election, compared with 48 four years ago.
Departing longtimers
Behind the ballots
There are always some interesting ripples revealed when county clerks call a halt to the filing process at 4 p.m. Among them this year:

• In Gallatin County, Melinda Murray has filed for the seat once held by her husband, who was removed by a judge for failing to earn a high school diploma. Chad Murray pursued an appeal, which is still pending, but his wife filed for a seat now held by Becky Burgett, a former board member who was appointed to replace Chad Murray. Burgett has filed for election to fill the remainder of that term. Melinda Murray had unsuccessfully sought appointment to the seat. 

• In the midst of the debate over state takeover of Jefferson County Schools, two of four incumbents filed for re-election and were unopposed. The seats of the two who did not file attracted a field of four candidates each.

• The fallout following the split vote that ousted former Danville Independent Superintendent Keith Look appears to have carried over into this year’s school board race. Two board members who pushed for Look’s departure did not seek re-election, while a third, Steve Becker, who favored retaining Look, filed to keep his seat. A total of five candidates are running, including former board member Paul Smiley, Jessamine County principal Aaron Etherington and Michael Strysick, who was on the committee that screened applications for the new superintendent.

• One Livingston County school board incumbent whose term is up this year missed the filing deadline, but is expected to file as a write-in candidate, albeit with opposition, according to Superintendent Victor Zimmerman.

• Two incumbent board members are seeking to trade places on the Anchorage Independent board. Robert Watson’s regular term is ending and Wendell Harris, an appointee who is filling an unexpired term, both filed. But Watson has filed to fill the remaining two years of Harris’ term, and Harris, meanwhile, has filed for Watson’s four-year seat. Two other incumbents on the Anchorage board did not file for re-election; a total of five candidates are running for the three regular-term seats. Watson stands alone in his two-year bid.

• An incumbent Woodford County school board member, Karen Brock, is facing off against Allison Richardson, who was a member of the group that actively – and successfully – fought the district’s proposed facilities tax this year.

• One of two brothers who have been serving together on the Glasgow Independent school board will not be returning after this term. Leigh Lessenberry did not file for re-election, leaving his brother Barret as the sole Lessenberry to file. Both were elected in 2010. Four people are vying for three seats on the Glasgow board.

• Donna Molyneaux has again filed for a seat on the Bardstown Independent school board, challenging three incumbents who filed for re-election. Molyneaux made an unsuccessful bid for the board two years ago on a platform of merging Bardstown with the Nelson County system and against property tax increases. 

• The three seats on the Eminence Independent board attracted a lot of interest this election cycle: eight people are facing off for those slots, including the three incumbents. Walton-Verona Independent is not far behind, with seven candidates for three seats. Two incumbents are running there.

• In Harlan County, incumbent Pam Sheffield did not seek re-election after nearly 16 years on the board, but her husband, Wes, has filed for her seat and is unopposed. In another marital development, Wayne Renfro, husband of Madison County school board member Mary Renfro, is one of three people vying for his wife’s seat. Mary Renfro, a candidate for state representative, did not file for re-election. 

• All five seats on the Todd County and on the Jenkins Independent boards will be on the ballot through a confluence of events that include vacancies and unexpired terms.

• Former board members are attempting comebacks in at least three districts: former Crittenden County board member Tina Harris is one of two people challenging incumbent Eric LaRue. In Wayne County, former board member Michelle Flynn is unopposed for the seat now held by Nancy Duncan, who did not seek re-election. In Franklin County, former board member Larry Perkins is seeking his old seat back after incumbent Jennifer Grisham Brown did not file for re-election. Perkins will face newcomer Ronnie Nolan, who is the director of the Kentucky Educational Collaborative for State Agency Children.
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