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NYS School Boards Association releases analysis of 2022 board elections

People hold signs for school budget votes
WAMC/Pat Bradley

With school boards across New York reorganizing after voters went to the polls in May, an analysis has been released on the 2022 elections. The New York State School Boards Association looked at voter turnout, board member incumbency and the major issues.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with the Association’s David Albert about the findings – including that 54 percent of elected school board candidates this year were incumbents.

Albert: It did surprise us and I'll tell you why. Because we actually had more newcomers this year running for office than incumbents. So the fact that more incumbents won was a little bit surprising, because we did expect to see more newcomers. So a little bit of a surprise. But as you point out, it's not a huge difference, you know, 54% were incumbents and 46% newcomers. So it's not completely out of whack. But at the same time, given that we had more new first time members running for board service, we did expect to see a little bit of an increase in the new members. But I will also point out that we have seen over the last couple of years, even though more incumbents won this year than newcomers, the percentage of incumbents getting reelected every year is dwindling. It's going down. So last year, it was 60% of incumbents won. This year was 54%. So it's actually gone down. And if you go back two years ago, which was at the height of the pandemic, and everything was mail-in ballots, it was 70% of incumbents actually took office, so 70% to 60%, down to 54%. So the percentage of board members that are incumbents is actually going down every year.

Levulis: And to go along with that, the Association estimates that fewer incumbents chose to seek reelection in 2022 compared to previous years. 30% compared to 25% in recent years. What are some of the reasons given for that or thought of for that?

Albert: Yeah, so as you point out about 30% of incumbents, so almost a third decided not to even run, and typically we see about 20 to 25% of incumbents decide not to run so it definitely was an increased this year. And so we did actually reach out to our incumbents who decided to not run again. And what we saw most often was that they just had, you know, other demands on their time, family commitments, things of that nature. We did see that, you know, a feeling that it was time to move on, you know, I've done my board service, and now it's a chance for someone else to contribute. It does take a lot of time, you know, to serve on a school board. It's not just the meetings, but it's other time, you know, prepping for meetings and addressing issues. And then we also saw a couple of other reasons. One was lack of civility. So we know that there have been some instances where board meetings have gotten a little bit out of hand, yelling, you know, hasn't been perfect sailing or smooth sailing. And so some board members just decided they had enough. And then graduating children, they had children who had moved on and were going off beyond high school. And they decided that was a good time to move on themselves and give someone else a chance to take over on their local school board.

Levulis: You mentioned that lack of or decrease in civility, a lot of it had to do with hot button issues, diversity, equity, inclusion and COVID-19 policies. But still, the Association analysis found that most of the nearly 1,500 elected school board candidates did not base their campaign platforms around those issues. What did that finding tell you that if a lot of the discussion, the heated discussion was around those issues, but those who won seats did not actually focus so much on those issues? What did that tell you?

Albert: Yeah, so I think that was an interesting finding, you know, because we certainly had heard a lot throughout the state about candidates that were basing their platforms on certain issues, you know, whether it was, you know, a parent choice type of issue, as far as you know, having input into curriculum or it was masks. And we knew that there were a number of candidates that were concerned about those issues and based their campaign on those issues. But what we found at the end of the day was that issues that tended to be polarizing in the community, were not a winning platform. It doesn't mean that the candidate who won didn't address those issues in terms of, you know, responding to questions being asked about those issues. But they just didn't make it the centerpiece of their campaign. And instead, we found that they tended to focus on, the winning candidates really tended to focus more on cohesion, bringing the community together. That was more the winning theme, as opposed to, you know, perhaps focusing on an issue that was seen by some members in the community as divisive. So that was an interesting finding. And again, you know, there were some cases where some candidates who did focus on some of those issues did win. So I'm not going to say it was, you know, across the board, but we're looking at, you know, kind of the majority of the winning candidates, and the majority didn't tend to focus their campaigns on those issues.

Levulis: And probably the finding that I found most interesting was that 88% of candidates endorsed by teachers’ unions were elected. And that that is so interesting to me, because, as you mentioned, you know, there were the so-called parent choice candidates, but it seemed to be that there was getting an endorsement from a teachers’ union was basically a lock for a win.

Albert: Yeah I mean, there's no question. I mean, almost nine out of 10 of the candidates that we identified as being endorsed by the union won their election. So that, you know, does say to us that those endorsements matter. And, you know, you can speculate, you know, it may be that perhaps the community looks to teachers’ union as being experts in education, and hey, you know, if they're suggesting or recommending this particular candidate then, you know, that that matters to us. And maybe in some instances, there may be people who wouldn't vote for someone the union endorsed, but those folks didn't seem to show up, at least in this election, based on these numbers. So, you know, again, I think it does speak to the fact that I think local teachers’ unions are obviously seen in a very positive light by people who vote in school district elections and board elections.

Levulis: And overall voter turnout this year on school district budgets and boards was up 23% compared to 2021. What do you think drove that increase?

Albert: Yeah, we did see an increase. And actually, it's, it's a welcome increase, because we have seen really very low percentage of registered voters actually showing up at the polls to vote on their school district budgets and in school board elections. I mean, typically, it's about 8% of registered voters. And if you want to compare that to say, a gubernatorial election, that's about 48% of registered voters. So there's a big gap there between, you know, folks who are showing up in board elections and showing up for larger elections. So we saw a big increase this year, 23%. And I think what we saw is, you know, that with a lot of the controversial issues that were in play and under discussion this year, I mean school boards got a lot of attention, not just here in New York State, but nationally. They were really at the center of a number of controversial issues. And we think that helped drive people showing up at the polls this year. And I think there are also, you know, groups that were encouraging folks to go out and vote. I know, the teachers’ union does that we do that just for people to get out and participate in school board elections, because it's really grassroots democracy at its most foundational level. So I think the efforts to get out the vote coupled with all of the controversy that we've seen play out on a national stage resulted in increased voter turnout this year.

Levulis: And my next question doesn't necessarily have to do with this analysis, but does touch on what we mentioned earlier, COVID-19 policies. I was wondering, what are you hearing, what is the Association hearing from school boards about a potential new COVID surge this fall, given the latest variants’ rising cases? Are you hearing concerns, some discussion heading into the fall?

Albert: So we haven't heard a lot. You know, I think right now we're starting to see, you know, an uptick and certainly hear about that, and I know, there's been concerns about the contagious level of some of these newer, you know, I guess, subvariants, if you will. You know, at this point, I haven't heard anything that would suggest that there would be you know, any type of return to masks or anything like that in school districts in the fall. It seems as though you know, just monitoring you know everything right now. And I will say that, you know, when we said this really for the last couple of years throughout the pandemic is that school board members are, for the most part, not public health experts. I mean, you know, they come from all walks of life, some may be medical experts, but most of them don't have that medical or public health background. So we do have to rely on the experts. And so we will, and I know, our members will definitely be looking to what the expert guidance is as we enter the fall, and you know, what are the best practices for reducing the spread of the virus. So at this point, you're starting to see districts really plan for September. So they're putting together class schedules and transportation schedules, this is the time of year when these things are getting going. So I'm sure that COVID, you know, will certainly be a big factor as they plan out and be thinking about what they need to be doing based on the experts’ advice to keep everybody safe, but also keep kids in school, keep kids learning, because we know there's a lot of negative consequences of the pandemic – mental health concerns, also learning loss that resulted from all of the time that students were out of school learning remotely, and not always fully engaged in their education.

Levulis: Governor Kathy Hochul recently signed into law a bill directing school districts to consider a panic alert system, emergency alert system, when looking at their safety plans. Are you hearing anything from districts, school boards, that they might seek out these systems, are interested in seeing what they have to do following that legislation?

Albert: Yeah, so we're kind of really in the early stages, that legislation was just signed, I think, in the last couple of weeks. So I think right now districts are kind of in information mode. And I do think that, you know, there is some interest, I think we've heard, you know, some interest from districts in these types of systems, but I think they just want to learn more information. Remember, our budgets have went into place on July 1. So the budgets that were approved by voters in May are now you know, just taking effect now, July 1. So, you know, if districts were interested in adding additional security features, they would need to obviously have funds in their budget for that. And some districts may very well have done that. We do know that school security has been a priority for districts, you know, in light of all of the world events. So, I think right now, they're really just looking at, you know, what does the bill say, or the law, you know, what is it? What is it allow us to do, what is it ask us to do, and then they're looking out to see if this something like this would work in their districts.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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