UPDATE: A bill that would have put an end to Indiana’s nonpartisan school board elections has died in a House committee. After drawing sharp criticism and no public support in testimony during a hearing earlier this month, House Bill 1182 was not return to the House Elections and Apportionment Committee agenda for a vote before Tuesday’s deadline for committee action.
The bill was one of several this session that would have required or at least provided the option of placing party identifiers on school board election ballots. None of the other bills have advanced beyond committee, but the provisions still could be amended into other bills during the remainder of the legislative session.
EARLIER: Over 20 educators, administrators and current school board members from across the state piled into an Indiana Statehouse committee meeting room Tuesday morning to oppose House Bill 1182, which would add political party identifiers to currently nonpartisan school board election ballots.
The bill aims to create more transparency and give voters a better idea of what the candidate they are voting for supports, according to author J.D. Prescott, R-Union City. But those testifying argued that political party identification will lead voters to choose school board members based on party only, with no regard for qualifications, and increase the already-rising level of partisan politics in schools.
“With recent discussions in education, they’re hearing from more and more constituents that would like to know where our school board members stand on a political spectrum, so they have a better understanding of where to cast their vote during the general election,” Prescott said.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, asked Prescott what information the labels would convey to voters that would be helpful in their decision making.
“You know when I look at Republicans or Democrats, I think it might even tell the difference between financial responsibility, moral character in some cases,” Prescott said.
Politics in school boards
School board members across the state came to express concerns that requiring school board candidates to be identified by political party would increase the level of political tension in school board meetings, which those testifying said should be focused on what’s best for kids rather than national and state politics.
Bob Savage, a 33-year board member in the Elwood Community School Corporation, said his job has become much harder with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You could never imagine your board meetings would be disrupted, and members have received threats and politically related consequences,” Savage said.
He said the best way for boards to deal with this difficult time is through human connection, which can be disrupted when politics are involved.
Many school board members testified that they have gone without knowing the political affiliation of their colleagues at all, without issue.
Brandon Croft, who said he was a Republican, is a school board president at Chesterton. Croft said school boards have already been facing political pressure.
“In the last 16 months, we faced partisan political issues from both sides beginning with masks, protests over an LGBT issue, and then continuing with CRT (critical race theory), which we don’t have, which sometimes you can tell people we don’t have and they still don’t believe we don’t have it but we don’t,” Croft said. The issues have led to threats and extra police patrols, which is why he does not believe partisan politics belong in school boards, he said.
Currently, only three states have partisan school board elections, with seven other states using a hybrid model, according to Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. Spradlin said he would accept a hybrid model, as long as it was not made mandatory. Spradlin recommended an amendment making the decision local, so districts like Prescott’s that would prefer partisan school board elections can have them.
Organizations in opposition
Several organization leaders appeared at the meeting to testify against the bill on behalf of the organizations they represent. These included the Indiana School Boards Association, Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, Stand for Children Indiana, Common Cause Indiana, American Federation of Teachers Indiana, Indiana Urban Schools Association, Indiana State Teachers Association, Indiana Coalition for Public Education and Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association.
John O’Neal, a representative of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said it is reckless for voters to assume school board issues can be determined along party lines. Instead, he said it is unnecessary for the bill to exist when most discussions of school policy can be had without politics.
“We believe this bill will only bring more polarization into schools at a time when communities, schools and families have been torn apart by the pandemic battles over masking and vaccines, curricular issues, and other political divisions,” O’Neal said.
Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said this may worsen the issue of down-ballot dropoff, or voters ignoring races that are lower on their tickets. It could cause confusion with voters assuming voting a straight ticket would automatically include school board races. With or without identifiers, voters would have to vote for school board members individually.
Prescott said more people may decide to vote in school board elections if they are partisan.
Ohlemiller and Bob Taylor, associate director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, both said the bill has the potential to narrow the pool of candidates running in school board elections. Many testifiers echoed this concern.
Under HB 1182, county party chairs would seek out school board candidates, similarly to how they seek out candidates for other local races. Prescott said this would help ensure the quality of candidates. But many of the meeting attendees said this would actually discourage potential candidates that do not want to hold a political position or cannot afford to launch a political campaign.
Ohlemiller said that an unintended consequence for the Indianapolis area, which leans heavily Democratic, may not ever elect Republican school board candidates.
Some testimony argued the legislature is being inconsistent with the idea of political involvement in schools. O’Neal said the potential change was a contradiction to the 2019 session decision to make the Indiana secretary of education an appointed rather than an elected position, which legislators said aimed to keep political issues out of education.
Because of the Hatch Act, which limits the political activities of federal employees, the bill would prevent federal employees from running for school board positions under a political party. Taylor said he was personally offended that this bill would prevent his son, a Marine, from running for a school board position. But Taylor said he does not want an amendment fixing the issue because a bill that needs a “workaround” should not be passed by the legislature.
The committee did not vote on the bill Tuesday but could do so at a later meeting.