Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Lamb advocates moving school board elections to November

In a multi-issue policy document released today (Wednesday, January 18), Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb endorsed moving local school board elections from late winter and early spring to coincide with the November general election.

In wake of Lamb’s push for the idea, what may seem like a dry issue of school governance takes on broader significance as local school boards oppose implementation of school choice policies and pursue policies that, critics assert, may increase costs to taxpayers. 

Lamb advocated the shift in election dates within the education section of his “policy and issues report” that circulated online and at the state Capitol at mid-day. The Republican from Edmond, a former state Senator, said,  “For added accountability and involvement, we need to move school board elections to the November general elections. That would facilitate greater voter participation and stress the value of school board participation and service. We must continue to get the general public involved in education.” 

Lamb’s advocacy could give fresh impetus to an idea advanced by many education reforms, conservative and otherwise. Perhaps the best known proponent of the idea nationwide is Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who pressed the idea in a widely-reported speech at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in 2011.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Lamb elaborated his perspective on the issue, “I talked about this idea when I was a legislator, during my 2010 campaign for lieutenant governor, and at town hall meetings in all 77 counties this past year.

“In policy debates we all press forward how important education is, but then our system is structured to ‘hide’ these elections in February or April. Voter turnout is low. So, we’ve not really prioritized the importance of these elections of the people who make local school policy. 

“The higher turnout that comes in a November election would truly make wider participation in education decisions a priority in the system.”

The first-term “light guv” concluded, “This issue came up in multiple communities as we traveled the state last year. The cost savings would give meaning to our efforts to be fiscally conservative and not go to the expense of elections that only a few voters actually participate in. Larger voter turnout would assure more representative and broadly supported policies.”

In Oklahoma, many districts (including District 4 in MidTown Oklahoma City) are holding school board elections on February 14; in multi-candidate races where no hopeful receives a majority, an April runoff will decide the victor for the non-partisan races. 

Concerning board elections in the Hoosier State, Daniels said in his AEI address, “nobody votes. It’s a lot easier to dominate, for a small or for an interest group to dominate the outcome and elect a friendly school board in the sparsely attended primary elections. And so now they will have more of the public at least eligible or at least on hand to take part in those elections.”
Gov. Daniels,considered by some analysts the most successful American governor during the Great Recession, has decried policies emanating from what he deems unrepresentative local boards in his state, including strictures in negotiated contracts with teachers’ unions.

These have included, he said “things as trivial as what the humidity in the school shall be or what color the teachers’ lounge shall be painted — I am not making this up — to more troublesome things like the principal can only hold staff meetings once a month or can only hold them on Mondays, to still more troublesome things like no teacher will be required to spend more than x hours with students [and] … no teacher can be observed in the classroom by the principal without a pre-conference and two days’, three days’, five days’ notice.”
Lamb’s support, and continued visibility for the issue, seems certain to boost arguments made by, among others, Brandon Dutcher of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). 

Dutcher argued in a recent commentary that unrepresentative board elections inflate education costs at the local level. 

He also pointed to decisions by several northeast Oklahoma school boards to defy – and eventually to sue to kill – the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act. Dutcher decried the use of taxpayer dollars to oppose the program intended to provide better educational opportunities to handicapped children. 

Along with many others, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett in 2010 decried defiance of the school choice law by a handful of local school boards. Garrett, a Democrat, said school boards that defied the bipartisan legislation creating the scholarships were “in violation of their oaths of office.” 

Political distortions wrought by the unrepresentative nature of many local school boards, Dutcher contends, extend beyond education policy per se, Dutcher argues. In his commentary, he included the example of some boards “board teaming up with other tax consumers in a chamber of commerce to oppose reductions in Oklahoma’s income tax rate.”