Is more partisanship better for our schools? Sen. Justine Wadsack thinks so.
School board members are some of the few local government officials in Arizona who are elected in nonpartisan races, but one Republican state senator wants to change that.
The proposal from Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, would require school board candidates to declare a political party and to participate in a partisan primary election. Wadsack is an advocate for school book bans, and has supported numerous anti-LGBTQ bills and is a harsh critic of Arizona’s public schools.
Wadsack told her colleagues on the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday that a party declaration was necessary to give voters enough information about the candidates prior to electing them.
“We need to identify who’s running and what their ideology is before being stuck with them,” Wadsack said.
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She added that she knows many people who backed winning school board candidates but later regretted it after the school board members voted in a way that conflicted with their views.
But some who work closely with school boards, and some school board members themselves, think that requiring candidates to declare a party affiliation is a terrible idea.
The Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents both oppose Wadsack’s Senate Bill 1097.
“We have very deep concerns about this bill,” said Barry Aarons, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents.
He added that simply putting a partisan designation on a ballot next to a candidate’s name doesn’t actually improve the quality of information available to voters about a candidate.
“It’s on the candidate to tell voters where they stand,” Aarons said.
If it becomes law, the bill would also create a significant issue in replacing school board members who leave office in the middle of their term. Existing state law says that government representatives who were put in office via partisan elections must be replaced with appointees from the same party.
With a dearth of interested candidates from any political party — especially in tiny rural districts — this bill could cause seats to go unfilled and leave boards without the ability to reach a quorum, Aarons said.
Wadsack answered that she was not willing to change her bill based “on the possibility of what might happen.”
She said it was a “one-issue bill” that she didn’t want to “convolute” with language about appointments.
Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, countered that it was not speculation that school board seats would have to be filled through appointments, but a certainty.
“There will be vacancies, it happens all the time,” He said.
Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, a former member of the Arizona State Board of Education and former Secretary of State, also acknowledged that Aarons’ concern was legitimate.
Bennett said that one county superintendent in his district had probably made more than 400 appointments during his tenure of around 15 years, adding that finding candidates to replace school board members who resign was relatively easy in metropolitan areas, but could be a significant challenge in small, rural districts.
“Sometimes, you’re just looking for a warm body,” he said.
Wadsack pointed to research from the right-leaning think tank Foundation for Government Accountability which shows that voters are five times more likely to mark a choice in school board races if the elections are partisan.
“Folks are capable of looking into where candidates stand,” Kotterman responded.
When local board candidates have to declare a party, it tends to attract more money into the races and more politicking — as well as partisan attacks.
“We don’t want to submit school board candidates to that,” he said. “Extending that rancor downward is not a good solution.”
In the past few years, public schools and school board meetings have become a target for parents angry over COVID-19 masking policies, gender pronoun policies and curricula aimed at teaching students about systemic racism.
Kotterman and Aarons, along with Democratic Sens. Christine Marsh and Catherine Miranda, all argued that making school board elections more partisan and polarized would not be a positive for students in public schools.
The last thing school boards need is to become “little legislatures,” Miranda said, referring to the strident polarization present in the state legislature, with 143 bills last year passed by Republicans and then vetoed by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs.
“You see what goes on here,” Miranda said. “We are very partisan. We don’t have it right yet. We’re not getting along good enough yet.”
School board seats are unpaid volunteer positions in Arizona, Marsh said, adding that people might be less willing to face the possibility of partisan attacks during their campaigns if they’re not compensated for their work.
Wadsack said that it doesn’t make sense to have partisan elections for some elected offices in Arizona and not others, repeating that it would ensure that voters elect candidates whose views align with their own. Except in Tucson, where Wadsack lives, all municipal elections are also nonpartisan.
“The fact of the matter is, if you have a partisan designation, it restricts you, because you become slavishly devoted to your partisan base,” Aarons said. “We should focus on consensus instead.”
The committee voted 4-3 along party lines to move the bill forward, but with Bennett stipulating that he will only continue to support the bill if it’s amended to remove the portion that would create partisan primary elections for school board candidates.
At present, school board candidates in Arizona don’t participate in primary elections and head directly to the general election ballot.