ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Keep partisanship out of school board races

Among all of the wrong-headed pieces of legislation concocted by the extreme partisan wing of the Indiana General Assembly’s ruling Republican Party, it is hard to label the GOP plan to politicize Hoosier school board races as the worst.

It faces stiff competition, after all, making it hard to choose just one.

In the Legislature, Republicans hold 71% of the Indiana House seats and 78% of the Indiana Senate seats, even though the party’s candidates in statewide races receive a more modest 53% to 57% of the vote, on average — a distorted advantage perpetuated by the legislative districts strategically drawn by the GOP legislators themselves.

Such dominance allows them to forward detrimental ideas, like politicizing Hoosiers’ local school boards.

And this plan is indeed bad. It has no redeeming qualities. None.

As with all of these schemes, the Republicans give this party-serving idea a shiny coat of rationalization to cover up the real motives of political expediency within.

By introducing a bill requiring school board candidates to declare a political party, Republicans will be “ensuring that parents have more insight and input into the curricular materials and surveys being used in their schools,” said Todd Huston, Republican speaker of the Indiana House.

Wrong. In reality, the placement of an “R” or “D” or “L” next to a school board candidate’s name does not provide more insight to that person’s probable behavior in office than the current nonpartisan system. Instead, it would simply empower party bosses to recruit and fund candidates willing to serve the politicos’ election-driven objectives.

Under Indiana’s nonpartisan system, school board candidates are often the most carefully chosen by voters. The lack of a party label leads voters to study the choices, attend candidate forums by groups like the League of Women Voters, and read pre-election interviews in the local newspaper. Those choices cannot be made by simply finding the “R” or “D” or “L.”

In the 2020 election, 56% of Vigo County voters favored Republican incumbent Donald Trump for president. Almost half of those votes came from voters casting a straight-ticket ballot for all Republicans. Thus, the top vote-getters in Vigo for most of the partisan state and countywide offices — like clerk, treasurer, auditor and recorder — were Republicans who won by totals similar to Trump’s, give or take a couple percentage points.

By contrast, the straight-ticket voting did not apply to the nonpartisan 2020 school board races. Voters had eight total candidates from which to choose for three seats in two districts. Voters decided to make a change, ousting two incumbents — a rarity in partisan elections. Those were thoughtful selections, not automatic reflexes guided by party labels.

The real motivation for injecting politics into hometown schools is to expand a political party’s influence.

Republicans are seizing on unrest over the no-win decisions school boards are having to make to keep kids safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. A partisan election would let state and national party leaders dictate the substance of candidates’ campaigns, pressuring them to inflate issues that appeal to people’s emotions in the voting booth, but are of minimal relevance in their community. School board candidates who normally are not overtly political would have to get overtly political.

Would a school board dominated by one party approve contracts of teachers who requested a ballot for the opposing party in an Indiana primary?

The toxic atmosphere in Congress and statehouses needs fixed, not spread further and into Hoosier schools. Keep control of schools in the hands of independent local residents, not a political party machine.