This year could mark the end of sleepy school election days.
It won’t be because of the budget proposals, not when New York State awarded a record amount of aid, giving every district an increase of at least 3%.
But school board races are another matter.
A key factor is that parents weary of pandemic schooling and lost learning, as well as those who vehemently oppose face mask requirements and other mandates plan to make their voices heard.
Petitions filed by school board candidates in 31 districts in Erie and Niagara counties show candidates running unopposed in six districts. That compares to 19 uncontested runs in 37 districts last year. And in 2019, 15 districts had contested races while candidates in 22 others were unopposed. Candidates were due to file petitions in most districts on Monday, but small town school board candidates have until Wednesday to file their petitions with district clerks.
The increased attention and interest in school councils is a trend seen across the country, where school council meetings have become a site of skirmishes in the culture wars.
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Some local school boards have seen contentious meetings over the past year, with parents in the audience demanding that board members and superintendents allow students to remove their masks. Some councils abruptly adjourned their meetings when members of the public defied the state’s mask mandate and refused to wear masks.
Energized by struggles against face masks and other pandemic mandates, candidates in a number of local districts are running with the help of groups that have platforms such as the curriculum in partnership with parents and the medical freedom.
Nobody liked watching kids struggle with remote learning, but parents learned new things after seeing what their kids were learning. Some did not like what they saw and expressed their frustration wanting to overturn the status quo.
And they believe running for unpaid positions on school boards at least gives them a seat at the table where decisions are made.
“School boards are democracy at its most local level. Many decisions made by school boards will have a greater impact on members of their community than decisions made at the state and federal levels. And yet, we are seeing a very low turnout in these elections and very little interest,” said David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.
Renewed interest among candidates can mean renewed interest among voters. The state school board association has launched a campaign to encourage communities to support local school boards by “providing a quality educational experience for every student.”
“In general, we’ve seen very low turnout in school board elections. They average about 8 percent of registered voters, both for school board members and their school budgets,” Albert said.
Instead of the candidate platforms of the past that called for low taxes and high academic standards, some candidates are specific when asking for greater parental input into the program.
A candidate from Clarence said on her Facebook page that she was running to “ensure that critical race theory and radical gender ideology never reaches the realm of our elementary, middle and high schools.” Others call for a curriculum “in partnership with parents” and medical freedom.
The past two years have been difficult for school board members, and six districts have no incumbents seeking re-election. And one, North Collins, has two openings but no candidates. Positions will be filled by written ballots.
Some say they just don’t have enough time to do the job.
Peter Kwiatkowski is completing a term on the West Seneca Central School Board. He said his job had changed and he was not seeking re-election.
“I’ve become far too busy to dedicate the time I feel is necessary to be a good board member,” he said.
After attending board meetings for about three years before running for office, he said he had a good idea of how the district operated. But he said future board members should know there’s a lot to digest.
“There’s a lot of information, a lot of reading and collaboration,” Kwiatkowski said. “It’s a lot, and it never ends.”
Dennis Toth has been on the Starpoint School Board for 12 years.
“It’s time for some new, younger blood to come along,” he said. “It’s time, all my kids are gone from Starpoint.”
One of the few unopposed candidates is Mary Ann Costello. A longtime teacher and administrator at Frontier Central, she was elected to the board when she retired five years ago.
“I was a little surprised,” Costello said of being the only candidate, but said she thought things were going well in the district.
Frontier had a few rowdy meetings where residents voiced their anti-mask views.
“We thanked them for their feedback. We told them we were following state recommendations,” she said. “We’re all in this together. We all want to do what’s best.”
She said being a board member sometimes takes her back to her administrative days.
“Sometimes we all get bored. Most people don’t come to tell you that you’re doing a good job. They only come when they’re worried or upset, but that’s what we’re here for,” Costello said. “And then you have those moments where you say ‘Why am I doing this?’ I’m retired, but I’ve never been a quitter.”
School elections on May 17 this year are a turning point, Albert said.
“We’ve had two and a half tumultuous years marked by distance learning, masks and vaccines,” Albert said. “I think we want to look at where we are today as a turning point and say that we’re going to need community support. School boards are going to need their community support to move forward.”
“There is a very important connection between the local community and the school boards and we want to make sure that the light shines on both the school board and the education system within this local community,” said Robert Schneider, principal. executive of the state school board association.