The school board appointed Oliver Townsend Sr. to fill the vacant board seat tonight. On the plus side: First, Townsend has an impressive résumé, including a term on the board in the 1980s. Second, the board did not appoint the incumbent who was voted out just last year, though some board members appeared tempted to.
Still, what a strange process. Although the applications for the position told us about the experience and qualifications of the applicants, they told us virtually nothing about how the applicants stood on important issues before the board. Yet that lack of information is exactly what the board members seemed to find appealing about Townsend’s application. Several board members talked about the importance of making a “neutral” choice, and avoiding candidates who “have some politics tied to them.” The board members also seemed determined to choose a candidate who would not run for reelection, so as not to give anyone a “leg up.”
If the board members were reluctant to impose their own policy preferences on the vacant seat, that’s admirable. But that’s not a reason to impose unknown or arbitrary policy preferences. If the board members were genuinely concerned about not overstepping their bounds, the sensible alternative would have been to hold a special election.
(I don’t know whether any board members talked individually with the applicants. If so, they may know more about Townsend’s politics. But if that’s the case, then their portrayal of the appointment as “neutral” is disingenuous and just for show.)
The whole discussion seemed to highlight the weird way in which school issues are treated differently than other governmental issues. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had impressive résumés; is that all we should want to know about them? But when it comes to school issues, there’s a strange reluctance to admit that people can disagree. The board members sometimes act as if good government is just a matter of getting everyone on board for the “right” solution, and as if education is too important to leave to “politics.” (Wars, the economy, our survival on the planet, fine—but not education!) I find that stance—and the accompanying emphasis on “unity”—just bizarre. The school board is a democratically elected body that governs a public school system funded by taxes. All of its decisions are political, as they should be. School governance requires making choices among conflicting values. How do we help anyone by pretending otherwise?
In 2013, we finally had a school board election in which candidates took clear stands on some important issues. Surprise—there were actual disagreements, and voters wanted to know about them! It turns out that not everyone wants to vote for school board candidates based solely on résumés and platitudes, without any discussion of where the candidates stand on important issues. Why do our board members want to?