Fewer new candidates amid perfect storm
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
A perfect storm of the coronavirus pandemic, a change in filing deadline and new requirement for high school transcripts combined to significantly reduce the number of new candidates running for school board seats this fall.
The 160 new candidates on this year’s ballots is the lowest number of new candidates of any similar election cycle since at least 2012. The number of new candidates fell 42 percent from the 2016 election cycle, the last in which three seats on county boards and two seats on independent boards were up for election.
This year, the filing deadline for school board seats moved to June 2, months earlier than the longstanding August date. In late May and early June, the state was just beginning to emerge from the months-long stay at home orders from Gov. Andy Beshear. Many county clerks’ offices remained shuttered, forcing potential candidates to take extra steps to file their paperwork, such as mailing it in or scheduling a drop off time. In many cases it was also more difficult to have signatures notarized.
This year is also the first election in the three county/two independent seat-election cycle in which candidates had to supply a transcript “evidencing completion of the 12th grade” or passing results from a high school equivalency test. The law, passed by the General Assembly in 2018, took effect April 4 of that year.
Many school offices in Kentucky and across the country were shuttered this spring, possibly preventing some would-be candidates from securing their transcripts in time to meet the filing deadline.“It is perhaps another unfortunate outcome of this once-in-a-century pandemic that we see fewer Kentuckians choosing to run for their local school board, just due to the overwhelming focus on the virus and the daily evolving quarantine issues we all faced in the spring,” said Eric Kennedy, KSBA director of advocacy. “For so many of us, just getting through each day was a challenge, so we may see it as a positive that we have even this many new folks stepping forward to seek this public service opportunity.”
While fewer new candidates filed for board seats this year, the percent of incumbents seeking another term increased from the last similar election in 2016. Eighty-two percent of incumbents filed, while four years ago just 76 percent of incumbents sought re-election.
The 2016 dip appears to be an anomaly. This year's 82 percent is in more in line with the 82 to 86 percent of incumbents who filed in similar election cycles from 2000 to 2012.
In 2018, amid a highly publicized “war” on public education that included a large scale demonstration of school employees at the state capitol over employee pension issues, as well as a growing funding gap, a high school transcript requirement and increased state-mandated training, 81 percent of incumbents filled for re-election.
The low number of challengers this year means that even before the ballots are counted, the makeup of 82 school boards will remained unchanged due to incumbents running without opposition – just 16 percent of incumbents face a challenger. From 2000 to 2016, in similar election cycles, the average percent of incumbents with opposition was 32 percent.Open seats
After the election, there will still be at least 17 open board seats. When the filing deadline passed, no one had filed for seats in 15 districts, 10 county and five independent. Two of those districts – Ashland Independent and McLean County – will have two open seats.
In McLean County, incumbents Joyce Sutton and Stephen Riggs did not file for re-election and in Ashland Independent, incumbents Mark McCarty and Bruce Morrison did not file.
The number of open seats increased drastically over 2016 when just three seats were left open and over 2012 when nine seats were left vacant.
Unlike in the 2016 and 2018 elections, seats left open after this year’s election will be filled by the other board members, unless there are write-in candidates. In 2019, the General Assembly passed a law allowing school boards to fill their own vacancies. Previously, the commissioner of education appointed new members to fill vacancies.
Under the new law, boards with open seats will have 60 days from Jan. 1 to fill the empty seats.Strong interest
Despite the lack of interest serving on the school board in some districts, other districts have races with multiple new candidates.
In Simpson County, two incumbents – Heidi Estes and Jennifer Stone – did not file. There are four candidates vying to fill Estes’s seat.
There was also great interest in serving on the Pikeville Independent board. While only one of the two incumbents filed for reelection, six newcomers also want a seat on the board leading to seven candidates for the two open seats.
In Newport Independent, all three incumbents up for election are seeking to keep their seats while three new candidates also want to join the board.
In some districts, none of the incumbents will be on the ballot. In Marshall County, of the three incumbents, only one, – Tiffany Carlson – filed. However, Carlson later withdrew from the race. Running to fill her seat are Mary Beth Riggs and Doug Hall. In another Marshall County race, Ledonia Williamson, who recently retired from the district as its recovery coordinator – a position created following the January 2018 Marshall County High School shooting, is running against Tabitha Neal, Marshall County Judge-executive Kevin Neal’s wife.
Like Marshall, there are no incumbents on the ballot in Nicholas County. The two incumbents up for election did not file and no one sought one of the seats, leaving it vacant until the board appoints a new member in January.
In Anchorage Independent, the two incumbents up for election also did not file and two new candidates filed to take their place.Beyond the ballot
In McCreary County, incumbent Debbie Gibson, who is also a regional chair on KSBA’s board of directors, is being challenged by former board member Johnny Barnett.
The two have run against each other twice before and have traded victories. Gibson won a seat on the board in 2004. Then in 2008, Barnett ran against Gibson and won the seat. The two ran again in the 2012 election and tied. Gibson was awarded the seat in a drawing. In 2016, Gibson faced three opponents – but not Barnett – and won.
The longest-serving board member in the state, Frank Riney III is running for his 12th term on the Daviess County board. Riney faces challenger Sharon Castle.
Riney, who has served for 43 years, told the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer that he decided to run again because he wants to continue to provide students with a good education and be a good steward of taxpayer money.
“I try to be responsible,” he told the newspaper. “It’s important to look after the financial part of it. I know there are a lot of people struggling. I try to spend money (in the district) like I’m spending my own money. I think it’s important to be accountable to people in that regard. I have tried to represent the people and be accountable and help the people in any way that I could.”Data analysis by staff writer Matt McCarty