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Deciding to close two schools. Switching the district to a four-day school week. Setting COVID safety policies. Fielding challenges to controversial library books.
Those are just some of the high-stakes decisions that have drawn attention to school boards in the Kansas City area in recent years.
But if any of them inspires you to go out and vote in school board elections this April, you may be out of luck — depending on where you live.
A handful of local districts have canceled their April 2023 elections due to a lack of candidates.
Researchers who study school board election trends say it’s not unusual for the races to get overlooked, especially when they don’t align with a general election.
But the end result is that voters don’t get a say in who represents them on government bodies that make decisions affecting thousands of children.
“It could mean that people are satisfied, so they don’t bother running,” said Vladimir Kogan, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University. “It could mean that they have no idea what’s going on.”
Which districts won’t have elections?
Kansas City Public Schools recently saw packed board meetings as the district considered closing up to 10 schools and ultimately settled on shutting down just two.
But the intensity over the district’s restructuring plan didn’t translate to competitive school board races. In the KCPS at-large and Subdistrict 2 races, only one candidate met the requirements to appear on the ballot for each race, meaning candidates Joshua Jackaway (at-large) and Jamekia Kendrix will be automatically seated.
The Subdistrict 4 race will appear on the ballot, but with no candidates named. Not a single person met the qualifications to appear on the ballot, meaning a write-in candidate will win the seat.
Monica Curls and Jay Gray have registered with the Kansas City Election Board as write-in candidates.
Center School District in southern Kansas City, Park Hill School District in the northwest part of the metro and Blue Springs School District in Jackson County all canceled their school board elections this year when each had three candidates filing for three open seats.
Instead of appearing on the ballot, those candidates will be automatically seated.
Independence School District will also not have an election because no seats were open this year.
Area districts that do have competitive elections include Liberty Public Schools, Hickman Mills School District, Lee’s Summit School District, Raytown Quality Schools and North Kansas City Public Schools. Keep an eye out for Beacon coverage and candidate forums for those elections.
All of those districts are in Missouri; Kansas is not holding elections this April.
Local school board candidate trends
The lack of candidates this year presents a contrast to April 2022, when Hickman Mills, Center, Independence, Blue Springs, Liberty, Lee’s Summit, Raytown, Park Hill and North Kansas City all had competitive elections.
Kansas City Public Schools did not have an election because no seats were open. Its most recent election, in 2021, saw two hotly contested races, one of which unseated the incumbent school board president.
Without counting candidates who dropped out, slightly more candidates in 10 districts tracked by The Beacon tracked ran for board seats in 2022, despite fewer seats opening.
In 2022, about 2.75 candidates filed for each open school board seat. In 2023, less than 1.75 filed per seat.
The Park Hill School District is one of the most dramatic examples of that trend.
In 2022, eight candidates filed for two seats. None of them was an incumbent.
This year, three seats opened. But only one new candidate filed, alongside two current board members. The election was canceled.
The Beacon reached out to two parent organizations that had been active in the Park Hill area, the Northland Parent Association and Park Hill Parents for Public Schools, to see if they could explain the lack of candidates.
The Northland Parent Association, which last year took stances against mask mandates and book selections at some schools, did not respond to a request for comment sent to its public Facebook page. The page then disappeared from Facebook as of Feb. 24.
Elisa Neilson, a parent who founded Park Hill Parents for Public Schools, said she was “shocked” by the lower number of candidates but declined an interview request, saying she didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to the district. The parents group has spoken out in favor of safety protocols, equity, inclusion and trusting experts.
National school board candidate trends
Doug Kronaizl, a staff writer for Ballotpedia who studies school board and state legislature elections, said that in the districts the online “encyclopedia of American politics” tracks, more candidates tend to file in years when more school board seats are up for election.
Ballotpedia regularly covers the 200 largest U.S. districts by enrollment, plus any districts in the nation’s most populous 100 cities — for a total of about 460 districts.
Kronaizl and Kogan, the Ohio State professor, both said it’s difficult and time-consuming to research school board trends because the elections are decentralized to each county.
That’s one reason why there isn’t updated information on school board trends nationwide. But statistics from the past can be instructive.
In research covering about 20 states from the early 2000s to about 2015, Kogan said, about 40% of elections were uncontested, and many others weren’t close races.
“There’s been a lot of interest in school board elections, a lot of, I think, efforts to recruit candidates,” Kogan said. “So maybe you saw some of that play out last year in more competitive elections. But now that some of that interest has faded, it seems like we’re kind of returning back to what was the norm before the pandemic and before some of the controversies in the last couple of years.”
Kogan pointed to controversy over the Common Core around 2010 as an example where energy around school board races increased, then faded as other current events drew attention.
Kronaizl is less confident that attention will fall away this time.
In the districts that Ballotpedia tracks, the average number of candidates per seat gradually increased from 1.85 in 2018 to 2.1 in 2021, he said. That’s the difference between the average race being canceled or noncompetitive and the average race being contested.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if 2022 continued that increase that we’re seeing,” Kronaizl said.
Data for 2023 isn’t yet available, and the trend doesn’t necessarily apply to smaller, more rural districts.
Ballotpedia has particularly been tracking “high conflict” races with polarizing partisan issues and efforts to recall school board candidates, which increased dramatically in 2021.
Kronaizl said that in many cases, it seems school districts are having a “nationalized” conversation about issues that go beyond schools.
“Based on what has happened in the past, you might think that cyclically, it will kind of dip back down until the next thing comes up,” he said. “But you never know … We haven’t really seen, in the recent history, issues being so prevalent in school board elections that have something to do with schools, but are also part of larger cultural conversations.”
Barriers to candidates filing for a school board election
Kansas City Public Schools is one district where controversial decisions and a high level of engagement didn’t translate into choices for voters.
But the district’s qualifications for appearing on the ballot — requiring 250 signatures from resident voters for subdistrict candidates and 500 for at-large candidates — contributed to fewer people getting on the ballot.
A spreadsheet shared by board secretary June Kolkmeier shows four additional candidates filed for one of the three open seats, but didn’t obtain enough signatures.
Current school board vice chair Jennifer Wolfsie said many districts don’t require candidates to collect signatures, and she thinks there are pros and cons to both approaches.
“Anytime you put a little barrier up, it does kind of lower maybe the amount of people that go through the process,” she said. “But then also, the flip side of that coin is people who actually go through the process of getting signatures are really interested.”
Wolfsie has helped run a “school board school” to teach prospective candidates about what it means to serve on the board and how they could go about getting elected.
One change event organizers are contemplating to reduce barriers is holding sessions ahead of November elections and encouraging candidates to use the election as an opportunity to collect signatures at the polls, she said. That helps ensure signatures are from currently registered voters who live in the correct area, which can otherwise be a pitfall.
Kogan and Kronaizl also said there tends to be lower voter turnout and less awareness of school board elections during “off-cycle” years when there isn’t a major general election and in places like Missouri, where school board elections aren’t held in November.
Wolfsie, who herself has run unopposed in two races, said canceled elections aren’t ideal.
“That exchange of ideas between two candidates or multiple candidates is always a great thing for any of the governing bodies that an election is happening for,” she said. “…The board in general would like to have multiple people always running, filing and securing the signatures so that you could have competitive races.”