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Non-Partisans in a Partisan World

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(This is the opinion of site founder Joanne Wallenstein) The campaign for Scarsdale School Board is over and the votes have been counted. On Tuesday, an independent candidate for school board triumphed over a nominee selected by the Scarsdale School Board Nominating Committee (SBNC). After the SBNC deliberations, an incumbent who served a first term on the school board was not selected by the SBNC, but triumphed in her independent run. What can we say about the results of this week’s election and what does the vote say about our process for selecting and electing candidates?

A few observations:

As anyone who is reading this article knows, the intent of the non-partisan system is a democratically elected committee of nominators charged with vetting candidates for school board and selecting those that they believe are most qualified to serve. Once selected, these candidates run uncontested and save the community from contentious and partisan campaigns.

However, in recent times, our elections have become more, not less partisan. Candidates who are not selected by the School Board Nominating Committee (SBNC) have been emboldened to run independently, and those who customarily back the non-partisan system lend their support to favored independent candidates. In this recent election we saw community leaders, former and present members of the Board of Education and PTA leaders, abandon their commitment to the non-partisan system in favor of an incumbent who was not selected by the SBNC.

From all accounts it appears that the SBNC did a thorough job of vetting, interviewing and selecting candidates, yet the wider community felt no obligation to support the slate. A popular former Board President led the campaign to re-elect an incumbent who was not re-nominated, and many jumped on the bandwagon on her recommendation.

Some said they voted based on recommendations from friends and information garnered from cocktail party conversation or chose the incumbent, which enabled the "true insiders" to re-elect their candidate in order to maintain the old guard. As a result, all the work and due diligence performed by the nominating committee, who were elected by the community, was undermined. Though some criticize the nominating committees for being “insiders,” the committees consist of representatives from all of Scarsdale voted in by their neighbors. They seek to find the right candidates with an open mind.

From my five years of service on the SBNC, I can attest to the fact that the 30-member committee follows the non-partisan resolution carefully, reaching out to find candidates, gathering input from peers, discussing and debating the needs and composition of the board and acting in the best interest of the community at large. This year a former Board of Education President chaired the proceedings, adding even more integrity to the work of the SBNC.

Furthermore, the independent candidate ran a full-fledged campaign, using advertising, social media and her network of PTA colleagues to garner support. She targeted the more vulnerable of the two SBNC candidates and left him with no choice but to launch a campaign on his own. Members of the School Board Nominating Committee did not believe it was their role to campaign or back the selected candidates, leaving the nominees to run their own campaigns.

To be blunt, the non-partisans were hit with a partisan election campaign and had no mechanism, organization or budget to defend their nominees.

Where does this leave us?

In the future, candidates who come before the SBNC should be aware that if selected by the committee, they may have to run their own campaigns. Will this deter residents from running? Perhaps!

Those who sit on the School Board Nominating Committee may also be called on to campaign for their selected slate. Again, will that deter residents from running for the committee? Perhaps!

Clearly the non-partisan process has been tested again. It was intended to prevent divisive and contentious campaigns, but today the non-partisans are just one political party. If this decades old system is to remain effective, it will need to adapt and use 21st century campaign tactics to defend itself.

Without any mechanism to bring out the popular vote, the non-partisan slate will be trumped by partisans over and over again.

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