Column: Canceling the SSSD school board election diminishes the exercise of democracy

The Steamboat Springs Board of Education passed a resolution Sept. 7 calling for the cancellation of its Nov. 7 election. While entirely understandable for financial and practical matters, it is somewhat disconcerting for a variety of reasons. 

We should applaud all individuals who seek public office and, particularly, those who wish to serve on local boards of education. Serving on a school board comes with long hours, criticism, strong opinions from constituents and no pay. A sincere desire to develop and implement policy that improves student achievement and the climate of the district should be the driving force behind an individual’s motivation to run for a seat on the board of education.

Conversely, board members are typically appointed through the electoral process. The public determines who serves on the board of directors to develop policy on their behalf, as well as hire and evaluate the superintendent of schools. If the public is dissatisfied with the direction of the district, recourse is taken at the ballot box. This is how representative democracy works.

The decision to cancel the election was done in a pragmatic manner. Only three individuals filed for three open seats. Write-in candidates must declare their intent to run by Sept. 1. In Steamboat, no one filed an affidavit of such an intent. Simple. Cancel the election and save the taxpayers the cost. (According to Superintendent Dr. Celine Wicks, the cost of an election is $12,000, juxtaposed against a $68 million budget.) A school board can be placed through acclimation and the business of school operation can move forward.

But democracy is not that simple. Voters, even given a choice of only one candidate, can express their disapproval by casting a ballot without voting for an individual. This is a message sent by the electorate to the board. It is the voter expressing doubts in a candidate. And if a candidate is a savvy politician, they will analyze these results and try to be responsive to the electorate. Canceling the election takes away this opportunity for voters to express dissatisfaction by not voting for a particular unopposed candidate.

This leads one to question the political awareness and savviness of the SSSD Board of Education by taking away the voice of the people and assuming their appointment process would be a proper substitute. Financially sound on one hand, politically naive on the other.

Additionally, cancellation of the election due to the lack of candidates underscores the apparent lack of interest in serving on the board, as well as the high rate of director turnover that has occurred recently. Public education in Colorado, as well as the rest of the nation, is facing enormous challenges. The Yampa Valley has issues pertaining to teacher shortage, recruitment and retention.

SSHS has faced challenges regarding student harassment, antisemitism and disagreements over curricular offerings. Future growth of the district presents physical plant issues. In short, there is no shortage of challenges. Yet solving these issues is incumbent on the community coming together to show sincere interest is solving problems. A lack of candidates could be construed as apathy or a lack of awareness toward the challenges that face the district.

And an often-overlooked matter is the issue of superintendent turnover. According to the American Association of School Administrators, it is estimated that 16% of superintendents leave their districts annually. New board majorities can increase this rate.

Come November, in only a year-and-a-half since assuming the superintendency of the district, Dr. Wicks will have served under eight different board members. It is important to note that strong, sustained executive leadership is necessary to achieve long-term district objectives. The board that assumes the mantle of leadership in November will not be the same board that hired Dr. Wicks. Yet they must commit themselves to supporting the superintendent and the long-term plans that have been established since her hiring.

Elections serve to promote the idea of public participation in governance. Conducting elections may inspire citizens to consider running for office in the future. Taking away this exercise in democracy diminishes the perception that a school board serves the public.

John Chalstrom
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

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