Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #91

Welcome to Hall Pass, a newsletter written to keep you plugged into the conversations driving school board politics and governance.

In today’s edition, you’ll find:

  • On the issues: The debate over partisan school board elections  
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • Ninety-seven school board members faced recall efforts in 2023
  • Extracurricular: education news from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey

Reply to this email to share reactions or story ideas!

On the issues: The debate over partisan school board elections

In this section, we curate reporting, analysis, and commentary on the issues school board members deliberate when they set out to offer the best education possible in their district. Missed an issue? Click here to see the previous education debates we’ve covered.

Over 90% of school board elections are nonpartisan—but should that change? 

The Treasure Coast Palm Editorial Board writes that many school board responsibilities are complex, administrative, and non-political. It believes making school board elections partisan is unnecessary and will increase political polarization.

George Korda writes that underlying political philosophies can influence how school board members approach even administrative challenges. Korda says voters have a right to know the partisan leanings of school board members so they can make fully informed decisions.

Don’t bring ‘dangerous vice’ of partisanship back to Florida’s school board elections | The Editorial Board, Treasure Coast Palm

“Overall, our founders seemed to view political parties as vestiges of the government they were seeking to replace. So, if we’re interested in following the founders’ advice about the best way to run a government, we should be looking at ways to make our political system less partisan, not more. … There’s a better way to find out where candidates stand on those and other topics: Just ask them. After all, declaring oneself a Democrat or a Republican is no guarantee a candidate is going to fall in lockstep with his or her party platform on every issue, anyway. Or it shouldn’t. It’s lazy thinking to assume all candidates will. And it also leads to a more serious problem with further politicizing school boards: Just as there is no Republican or Democratic way to pave a pothole, the two parties’ platforms don’t cover all of the numerous and complex issues involved in educating our children.”

Voters have right to know candidates’ political party philosophy | George Korda, Knox News

“It’s argued that there’s no Republican or Democratic way to teach math, conduct a science experiment, learn to read, pave a road or build a bridge, so partisanship is unnecessary. If so, then there’s also no partisan way at the federal government level to collect taxes, manage the park system or defend the nation’s borders. The fact is that there are differing philosophies of government, and voters for school board, city council, etc., have a right to know the governing philosophy of people running for important offices. That’s because there are differences in how the left and right view substantive issues affecting peoples’ lives. … If a candidate for school board, city council or any office is going to vote in a Republican or Democratic primary, or has allegiance or is in concert with the philosophy of either party, then there’s no reason why those allegiances and philosophies shouldn’t be known by voters.”

School board update: filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications

In 2023, Ballotpedia covered elections for over 9,000 school board seats in more than 3,000 districts across 34 states. We’re expanding our coverage each year with our eye on the more 13,000 districts with elected school boards. 

Upcoming school board elections

On Jan. 9, voters in the Plattsmouth Community Schools district in Nebraska will decide a recall election against Terri Cunningham-Swanson, a member of the Board of Education. The recall effort started after Cunningham-Swanson called for a formal review of several books in the school library. 

This will be the first recall of 2024. Click here to see a list of upcoming recall elections.

Cunningham-Swanson said the books had “very graphic sexual content. And I do mean graphic. The list of books is on the website, too. Parents can check them out for themselves. Then go to a parent-run website, such as booklooks.org or ratedbooks.org to read the content of these books.”

The board established a committee to review 52 books. On Nov. 14, the committee recommended the removal of 51 books from the library. The board voted 8-1 in favor of the recommendation. 

Recall supporter Ryan Michael Whitmore said, “Terri has decided to push an extreme personal agenda that will be a burden on the staff and taxpayers. The agenda is to remove materials that are related to LGBTIA+, showing certain minorities in a positive light and showing Christianity in a negative light.”

About 1,480 students were enrolled in Plattsmouth Community Schools in 2022. The median school district in the country has around 1,135 students. 

We’ll have more on the results of this recall in next week’s edition. 

Ninety-seven school board members faced recall efforts in 2023

Speaking of recalls, we recently released our 10th annual year-end report looking at state and local recall efforts throughout 2023. Let’s kick off January with a look at school board recall efforts.

We covered 48 recall efforts against 97 school board officials. In 2022, we covered 54 efforts against 123 school board officials. 

Voters removed 13 of the 97 officials—a 13.4% recall success rate. That’s the highest since 2018, when voters removed 29.7% of school board officials named in petitions. 

Thirty-nine states allow voters to recall local officials. Nineteen of those states also have recall for state officials. Eleven states do not allow voters to recall any elected officeholders. Some states require sufficient reason to hold a recall election, which can include abuse of power, malfeasance, or failure to perform prescribed duties. Other states do not require any grounds for recall.

In 2023, city council members faced more recall efforts than any other group, continuing a trend from 2016 to 2020. However, in 2021, as the country confronted the coronavirus pandemic, school board members faced more recall efforts. City council members once again faced the most recalls in 2022. 

Recall efforts against school board members took place in 13 states last year. Michigan and California lead the count with 14 apiece. Last year, Michigan had the highest number of efforts. 

Here are a few notable school board recall efforts from 2023:

Temecula Valley Unified School District recall

This effort, which is ongoing, began in June, when supporters filed notices of intent to recall three of the five members of the Temecula Valley Unified School District Board of Education in California. The notices named Trustee Area 2 representative Danny Gonzalez, Trustee Area 3 representative Jennifer Wiersma, and Trustee Area 4 representative Joseph Komrosky. On Dec. 6, supporters submitted 5,200 signatures to put the Komrosky recall on the ballot but did not collect enough for Gonzales and Wiersma. The Riverside County Registrar of Voters has 60 days to verify the signatures. 

The effort started after the board voted 3-2 against a new social studies curriculum for first through fifth grades at a board meeting on May 16, 2023. On July 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced the state would provide the school district with social studies books to replace the ones that were canceled with the board’s vote against the curriculum.

Wiersma voted against the textbook, saying sexual orientation and LGBTQ issues did not need to be taught in elementary school. Both Komrosky and Gonzalez said they did not agree with the mentions of Harvey Milk in the textbook’s optional supporting materials. They both called Milk a pedophile in reference to a report that Milk had a relationship with a 16-year-old when he was 33.

The board reviewed the textbooks again on July 18, 2023, and again voted 3-2 to reject them. Newsom said the district would be fined $1.5 million and charged an additional $1.6 million to pay for the state to ship the district new textbooks. On July 21, the board voted 4-0 to approve the new curriculum. The vote also postponed one lesson for fourth graders pending further review. Wiersma and Komrosky voted with the other board members to approve the curriculum. Gonzalez was absent.

We covered the Temecula recall in greater detail in the Aug. 2 edition of this newsletter. 

Richland School District recall

On Aug. 1, 2023, voters removed M. Semi Bird, Audra Byrd, and Kari Williams, three of the five members on the Richland School District school board in Washington. 

​​Recall supporters said that the board members violated the Open Public Meetings Act; violated district policies, procedures, and code of ethics; and voted to make masks optional while a statewide mask requirement was in place. 

All three board members denied any wrongdoing. Williams said, “The general feeling for us is that this has always been about students … Giving families a mask choice option was doing what was best for every child.” 

Coronavirus-related recall efforts at all levels of government have diminished in recent years, accounting for 37% of all recall efforts in 2020 and 2021, before dropping to 13% in 2022, and less than 1% in 2023.

Read more from our 2023 recall analysis here. So far in 2024, campaigns have targeted 34 school board officials for recall. You can follow along here.  

Extracurricular: education news from around the web

This section contains links to recent education-related articles from around the internet. If you know of a story we should be reading, reply to this email to share it with us! 

Take our Candidate Connection survey to reach voters in your district

Today, we’re featuring responses from two candidates who ran in the nonpartisan general election for School District 27J Board of Education District 3 in Colorado on Nov. 7, 2023. Melinda Carbajal defeated Shawna Hirter 59.2% to 40.8%.

School District 27J is the 15th largest district in the state, with an enrollment in 2022 of about 20,000 students. Four board seats were up for election in 2023.

Here’s how Carbajal answered the question, “What are the main points you want voters to remember about your goals for your time in office?

  • “EVERY student deserves the highest quality education, from high quality teachers who are valued.
  • Career and technical education is so important and ensuring the CTE buildings that the bond afforded us continue to be utilized and have the resources needed to put out workforce ready students.
  • Safety should, and will continue to be a top priority for myself when I am a community board member. Every child should feel safe and all parents at ease when their students are at school.”

Click here to read the rest of Carbajal’s responses. 

Here’s how Hirter answered the question, “What are the main points you want voters to remember about your goals for your time in office?

  • My #1 goal as School Board Director will be to create a culture of partnership. We need to strengthen and nurture the parent, student, teacher bond. Parents need to feel welcomed in their student’s education. Students need to feel surrounded by parents and teachers who care about their education. Teachers need to feel supported by parents in the education of the children. This relationship can be one of the most impactful and important teams in a person’s life.
  • Let’s bolster transparency within the district. Parents want to know what their children are being taught in the classroom. We need to get back to the basics of education. Teaching the subjects that will help children succeed and be life-long learners. Finances are another key area that needs to be transparent. Taxpayers want to know that the district is spending funds wisely.
  • My third and I think most challenging goal will be to use our newfound partnership to work together with the schools, parents, and community leaders to find ways to address the ever increasing bullying problem. This is critical as it is leading to an epidemic of drug-use and suicide in youth.”

Click here to read the rest of Hirter’s responses. 

If you’re a school board candidate or incumbent, click here to take the survey. If you’re not running for school board, but there is an election in your community this year, share the link with the candidates and urge them to take the survey!

In the 2022 election cycle, 6,087 candidates completed the survey. 

The survey contains over 30 questions, and you can choose the ones you feel will best represent your views to voters. If you complete the survey, a box with your answers will display on your Ballotpedia profile. Your responses will also appear in our sample ballot.