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More Thoughts on the School Board Election and Non-Partisan System

questionmark(This is the opinion of site founder Joanne WallensteinWe spoke to several people who are keen observers of the Scarsdale non-partisan process to get their feedback on the most recent School Board election. As many of you know, in the May 15 election, two candidates were selected by the democratically elected School Board Nominating Committee to run on the ballot for Scarsdale School Board.

However, current school board member Pam Fuehrer, who had served one three-year term, was not selected by the SBNC to run for a second term. She opted to run independently, garnered the support of many current and former members of the Board and the PTA’s and defeated one of the candidates chosen by the SBNC.

The election was controversial for many reasons and we thought it deserved further exploration.

What is on people’s minds? Here are some of the questions:

-Barring cases of gross misconduct, should the SBNC automatically grant an incumbent candidate the nomination for a second term on the Board if the incumbent wants to run?

-Traditionally the community has supported the non-partisan system and the candidates chosen by the non-partisan process. Has the community lost faith in this process?

-The current voting process dictates that candidates run for specific seats on the Board. For example the committee nominated Alison Singer to run for the seat held by Pam Fuehrer and Woodrow Crouch to run for the seat held by Art Rublin. Believing that she had a better chance of defeating Crouch than Singer, Fuehrer chose to run against Crouch for the seat held by Rublin rather than running for the seat she currently holds. This assured Singer of a position on the board (as she ran uncontested) and challenged Crouch. Some are calling for the procedure to be changed to eliminate the process of running for specific seats, and instead giving the seats to those who get the most votes.

- Is it the role of the School Board Nominating Committee to act as a political party and support their chosen candidates with a political campaign? Since the independent candidates launch campaigns, are the SBNC candidates at a disadvantage?

Very few people were willing to be quoted, but we did hear some interesting thoughts.

Former school board member Jackie Irwin supported Fuehrer. Commenting on the issue of incumbency, Irwin said, “Since I can only recall one other time when the SBNC declined to re-nominate a sitting trustee for a second term, it is difficult to say that this is new trend. From my own experience on the SBNC and as a reference for prospective nominees, I sense that in any given year there are committee members who are critical of an incumbent. The majority of committee members, however, come to appreciate the fact that school board members and Village Trustees abide by our de facto two-term limit and in the end vote to re-nominate the incumbent. The outcome this year was a head-scratcher for many of us. Our mutual concern galvanized us to support a challenge to the slate. The results speak for themselves.”

Two former school board members, Rita Golden and Barbara Jaffe also supported Pam Fuehrer’s bid for re-election. They explained their thinking in a letter to Scarsdale10583 and said that their support of an independent candidate did not mean they did not support the non-partisan process. They wrote, “We, along with many other former school board trustees, supported Fuehrer in the recent election because of our concern that there is a steep learning curve involved in becoming an effective board member, and felt strongly that Pam’s experience and knowledge was essential at this time.”

“We fully support a non-partisan SBNC that is committed to selecting board members who are not single-issue candidates, do not vote as a bloc, and consider the merits of each decision on an individual basis. As with any democratic public or political institution, the SBNC may not always function perfectly, but it is, in our opinion, the best system to select the most qualified candidates to lead our school district.”

“In the future, we hope that more people will be willing to run for a seat on the SBNC and that those elected will understand that experience and first-hand knowledge are very important criteria in determining their final selection. We want to encourage volunteerism in our community and not let the fear of being rejected for a second term discourage those willing to run for a School or Village Board seat.”

A Greenacres neighbor offered the following in defense of the non-partisan process:

“To me, even more than saving the community from contentious and partisan campaigns, the value of the non-partisan system is saving the qualified nominees from contentious and partisan campaigns. Specifically, there are many highly qualified individuals who are happy to serve but would not run if they had to spend their energy and money fighting against their neighbors. Importantly, the value of the non-partisan system is also that qualified individuals do not have to decide in advance how they feel about specific issues and campaign on those prematurely-formed views based on incomplete information. Rather, they can keep an open mind, listen to the community (including residents, the administration, teachers, groups that study the issues, other board members, etc.), gather detailed information, and then more fully analyze the situation to do what is in the best interest of Scarsdale as a whole.”

A former member of the School Board Nominating Committee called for an examination of the election process to determine how to change it so that candidates do not run for specific seats. She favored a process whereby those with the most votes win. She also questioned the decision by former and current members of the Board of Education not to support the candidates nominated by the SBNC, when they had all served after being nominated by the SBNC. She said, “They only support the non-partisan process when they like the candidates chosen? … How can a current member of the Board of Education sign a full-page ad in the Inquirer in support of a candidate when the process is supposed to be non-partisan?”

On the recent process of candidates running independently, one observer noted:

“Some would argue it’s a good thing to give voters a choice, but others (traditional supporters of the nonpartisan system) would argue it defeats the purpose of having a nonpartisan system.”

On incumbents being re-nominated she said, "Each nominating committee is charged with selecting an individual that the committee members determine is "qualified" to serve. Note that neither resolution modifies that - i.e. not most or best qualified, simply qualified.” She added, “No one should take for granted that he/she will be re-nominated just because he/she is an incumbent and has not committed any crime. You have to serve with distinction during your first term and make the effort to present your credentials and your interest in continuing to serve. Every elected official, whether on the county, state or federal level, has that responsibility; it should not be different on the local level just because we have a nonpartisan nominating system.”

About the need to campaign, she said, “I do think it is necessary that when there is a contested election, there is a mechanism in place for a nonpartisan party committee to mobilize to support the candidacy of the SBNC candidates as is done on the village side. I think this election illustrated that the SBNC candidates were left to fend for themselves to run a campaign.”

I had conversations with several others who assumed that the SBNC committee members themselves were focused on a single issue or were blaming the incumbent for the actions of the School Board. Since the proceedings are confidential we will never know what was said in the room, and I was puzzled that these critics spoke so confidently about what they assumed had occurred. I also noted that many who backed Fuehrer based on her service had not attended a board meeting in the past three years, so I wondered what information they were using to form their views.

In an April 13 letter from SBNC Chair Elizabeth Guggenheimer, who herself is a former School Board President, defended the process and the nominees. She said,

“Pursuant to rules of procedure, committee members conducted due diligence by contacting dozens of people outside of SBNC familiar with the applicants, presented confidential due diligence reports, shared relevant factual information and experiences, focused on the many positive attributes of this year’s candidate pool, and listened to one another carefully.

Discussions and deliberations regarding candidates are confidential in order to encourage people to apply, protect the privacy of candidates and references, allow for candid discussion among SBNC members, and select nominees based on their qualifications.

The committee discussed fully and candidly the qualifications of all proposed candidates before there was any vote, and it voted by secret ballot to fill each vacancy. This year’s SBNC members devoted an estimated 1,600 total hours (an average of 50 hours per person) to their charge. The process was serious and deliberate, with respect for differing opinions.”

So though the Chair believed that the committee had acted responsibly and ethically, many outside the room drew their own conclusions.

Does the non-partisan process serve the community well? If you have thoughts about the election and the non-partisan system, please share them in the comments section below.

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