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Back on the ballot
Despite political turmoil, more incumbents, fewer newcomers seek school board seats

Kentucky School Advocate
August 2022

After a tumultuous school year that saw school closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks, tensions over mask mandates, concerns over critical race theory – and heightened interest to school board meetings across the state – it would be easy to assume that many more people would seek election to their local school board.

And, that given the turmoil, many current board members would decide to call it quits.

But when the June 7 filing deadline for the 417 local school board seats up for election this November passed, there were fewer new candidates and more incumbents running for office than in 2018, the previous comparable election cycle.

“We didn’t know what to expect this cycle after the last two years of boards so in the spotlight,” said Eric Kennedy, KSBA director of advocacy. “One takeaway from the consistency in filing patterns is that the candidates are folks who understand and take seriously the role of board member and aren’t motivated as a knee-jerk reaction to any one issue.”  

A total of 244 newcomers are seeking board seats this fall, 20 fewer than in the 2018 election, the last similar election when generally three seats on independent boards and two seats on county boards are on the ballot. In that election there were 173 school boards compared to today’s 171.

Also this year, 85 percent of incumbents filed for re-election, the highest percentage in any of the comparable election cycles over the past 28 years.

“This was frankly a surprise to me, but a pleasant one,” Kennedy said. “Things have been stressful for everyone the last two years, so I’m happy to see so many members remain committed to this public service.”The percent of those incumbents who will face an opponent is up slightly this year, but not out of line with previous comparable election cycles. Four years ago, 31 percent of incumbents had challengers; this year 34 percent face opposition.

Kentucky’s board filings appear to buck a national trend of more candidates per seat in this year’s school board election. Ballotpedia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that tracks elections, found that this year an average of 2.9 candidates are running per seat in 1,002 races in 16 states. The analysis did not include Kentucky.

In this year’s election, Kentucky has 1.4 candidates per board seat. The lowest of all the races in the analysis was New York with 1.5 candidates per seat. Nevada had the highest with 5.1 candidates per seat.

Boards unchanged and open seats  

Even with more incumbents facing challengers, about one third of Kentucky’s 171 school boards will be unchanged after the election with incumbents running unopposed. (See map, page 11)

After the election, nine boards will have unfilled seats unless someone files as a write-in candidate. The deadline to file as a write-in is Oct. 28. The open seats are in Berea Ind., Dawson Springs Ind., Southgate Ind., Livingston Co., Harrison Co., Ohio Co., Jessamine Co., Williamstown Ind. and two open seats in Metcalfe Co.The 10 unfilled seats are far more than the three open seats in the last similar election, but fewer than the 17 open seats after the 2020 election. This is the second election in which seats that are not filled by a write-in candidate will be filled by a vote of the board thanks to a 2019 law passed by the General Assembly.

Crowded races  

Though overall school board seats have not garnered more interest than in the past, a few school districts have large numbers of candidates vying for a seat.  

One seat in Scott County has the most contenders in the state. Incumbent Stephanie Powers is facing four challengers for the seat. The challengers include Chris Logan, owner of Marbled Pig BBQ, April Nichols-Baker, a medical office manager, Marijean Long, a former library media specialist at Georgetown Middle School, and Eleanor Ratliff, a former RTI interventionist in the district and mother of Carol Barr, Congressman Andy Barr’s wife who passed away in 2020.

In at least five other districts, incumbents face three challengers; Oldham County’s Suzanne Hundley, Henderson County’s Kirk Haynes, Anderson County’s Rose Morgan and Clay County’s Anthony Lovett. In Jefferson County, board chairwoman Diane Porter faces three challengers as does James Craig.

The lack of an incumbent in some districts seems to have spurred interest in running for the board.

After seven years on the Wayne County board, Whitney Smith did not file for office, leading four people to seek the seat. In Knox County, there are four candidates for the seat that Carrie Runyon Smith is vacating. The candidates include Jimmy Walters, the district’s former FRYSC coordinator who retired in 2020.

School board candidates for independent districts run at-large meaning there are no divisions and all voters can vote for multiple candidates. Three independent districts in northern Kentucky have the most candidates in the state.In both Fort Thomas Ind. and Walton-Verona Ind. there are eight candidates for three seats on the board. In Beechwood Ind. there are seven candidates for three seats.

Masking mandates and other COVID-19 mitigations appear to have spurred at least some of those candidates to seek a seat on the board.

Two of the Fort Thomas candidates, Noah Gibson and Tobias Varland, both fathers of children in the district, were quoted in a television news story earlier when the district moved to optional masking. Gibson was against masking requirements and Varland was for masking requirements if data showed it was needed.

Incumbents in the race include Ann Meyer and Lisa Duckworth; the other candidates are Pamela Schultz, Sarah Foster, Clem Fennell and David Russell.

After 24 years of service, board member Brad Fennell did not run for re-election.

“It has been a tremendous honor to serve such a high achieving district,” he said. “I served through the entirety of my four daughters‘ primary and secondary education and was fortunate enough to hand each of them their diplomas. It’s time to pass the baton.”

Fennell, who is believed to be the longest serving member on the Fort Thomas board, said Clem Fennell is his first cousin once removed.

Schultz is a graduate of the Prichard Committee’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership program, Foster is an attorney and PTO member, and Russell is an adversity agency executive and an SBDM member.

In Walton-Verona, two incumbents – Kyle Art and Stacey Thornberry – are not running. Incumbent Heather Stewart is running along with two SBDM members – Adrienne Pronk and Thomas Allen Volz. The other candidates are Aubrey Ryan, Stephanie Courtney McClure, Craig Collinsworth, James Dixon and Aaron Smith and also running.

In Beechwood Ind., incumbents Jeanne Berger and Amy Sleet are on the ballot, but board chair Norinne Sullivan decided not to run.

The challengers include school-based decision making council member Robann Cunningham; Amanda Johannemann, who works for the meetNky, a marketing organization for northern Kentucky; Brad Hood, who previously served 12 years on the board; Michael Smith, a father of four; and Chris Korba, an accounting controller.

Both Smith and Korba spoke out against masking requirements last year at board meetings.

Beyond the ballot    

Along with Hood, at least three other districts have former board members seeking a return.

In Hardin County, Mark Casey will return to the board as he is the lone candidate for the seat he resigned in 2021 when his daughter took a job with the district. With his daughter no longer employed there, Casey filed for the seat now held by Sherry Barnes, who did not file for reelection.

In Bath County, both Hurschell Rawlings and Eric Conkright are running after a four-year board hiatus. Rawlings served for eight years but did not run in 2018. This fall he will run against incumbent Carla Bowling, who replaced him. Conkright served one term before losing to Burnsy Stewart in 2018. This fall, Conkright is running unopposed.

In Fayette County, former board member Amanda Ferguson is seeking to return to the board. Ferguson served for 10 years before resigning in 2016 after the Office of Education Accountability found that she had “acted outside the scope of her authority.” Incumbent Stephanie Spires and newcomer Matthew Vied are also in the race.

Franklin County board member Natalie Lile’s seat is not on the ballot this cycle, but Lile is. Lile, who has served on the board since 2017, is running for a seat in another division after she recently moved. Lile is seeking to replace BeLinda Henson who is not seeking a new term after 11 years on the board. Lile faces Lambert Moore in the race.

The reigning Miss Kentucky, Hannah Edelen, is running for a seat on the Covington Ind. board. Edelen, 24, was a teacher in the district and had planned to teach this school year in Campbell County. After she was crowned in June, she learned her Miss Kentucky duties will keep from teaching this year.

The Covington race has four candidates for two seats including incumbent Jerry Avery.

In Danville Ind. all five board seats are on the ballot – three four-year terms and two two-year terms currently held by appointees. The two appointees, Jennifer Pusateri and Ester Rugerio, are running for four-year terms along with incumbent Glenn Ball and newcomer Malcolm Miller.

Incumbent and former KSBA board of directors member Steve Becker chose not to run.

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