It’s a procrastinator’s race.
As of Tuesday, only four candidates have filed to run for two of five seats in the upcoming Billings School District 2 board of trustees election. That means three seats don’t have a single candidate.
It comes as no surprise to Duane Winslow, election administrator for Yellowstone County.
In years past, it hasn’t been unusual for candidates to file with the Yellowstone County Elections Office just before the 5 p.m. deadline.
“It’s not uncommon at all,” Winslow said.
This year, that deadline is Thursday.
For some reason, getting candidates to run for school board involves a certain amount of “arm twisting,” Winslow said.
Competing for District 7 on the SD2’s far West End are LaVonna Robinson, Connie Wardell and Craig E. Hash. They’re running for the spot of board Chairman Malcolm Goodrich, who is not running for re-election. Running in District 5, which includes the neighborhoods on either side of 24th Street West, is Lindy S. Graves. Peter Gesuale, the incumbent, has not yet registered to run.
“Unfortunately, because it’s not a paid position and when you look at certain parts of town, not many people can do it,” said Mike Dimich, a Billings businessman who served two terms on the board until 2006.
The demands on trustees are large. Conrad Stroebe, who served seven terms on the board, from 1985 to 2006, said there were periods when most of his time during any given week was spent on board business. Trustees expend enormous amounts of energy trying to understand and vote correctly on the issues.
“It’s almost impossible,” he said.
There’s a steep learning curve for new trustees as they struggle to understand various budgets and state education funding. They’re required to know the state’s various education codes and understand the rules governing public meetings.
And then there are the meetings — board meetings, committee meetings, strategic planning meetings and meetings with other community leaders. It can quickly add up to dozens of hours a month.
“Who has the time to do all that?” Dimich said.
Wardell, Hash and Graves believe they do. Robinson could not be reached for comment.
Wardell, who regularly attends the board’s monthly meetings and often speaks during public comment, said she has studied the issues and is ready to run.
“It’s time I step up and try to serve,” she said.
Raised in Billings, she graduated from Senior High and runs Wardell Investments. She has worked in real estate and property management for 40 years. Wardell also is active in local politics and has mounted three unsuccessful campaigns for local office.
Hash, a pilot, is a parent in the district and decided that with Goodrich’s departure, it was time to get involved.
“I do realize there are some real big issues facing the community,” he said. “Instead of complaining about it, I thought I should” run for the board.
Graves, who so far is the only candidate in his race, believes he can bring some budget insight to the school board. Graves served as a county commissioner in South Dakota before moving to Billings a year ago with Qwest, where he is a manager. He deals with budgets all the time in his job, he said.
Graves also has three young children in the district, at Rose Park Elementary. When the board started to float the idea of clustering schools — spreading grades kindergarten through sixth across three schools — he was bothered.
“I just wanted to get involved,” he said.
Winslow would like to see more of that. But he fears the voters’ decision nearly a decade ago to split the school district into smaller zones made it harder for people to run for the board.
For most of the district’s history, all trustee seats were at-large, meaning if there were three open seats, the three top vote-getters were elected.
But that changed in 2003 when voters approved dividing the elementary school district into seven zones. Candidates must live in the zones they serve. The feeling at the time was to get more representation from areas like the Heights and the South Side, which were traditionally underrepresented when candidates were voted at-large.
That’s not a bad thing, Winslow said.
“It does allow equal representation across the district,” he said.
However, those areas that were traditionally underrepresented before the change are the same areas that often have trouble producing a candidate now, he said.
The result, former trustee Dimich said, has been to reduce the number of candidates who file each election year to only those who, in terms of time and energy, can afford to run for the board.
Stroebe said one solution would be to make each of the 22 elementary schools in Billings its own district with its own board. It’s hard to find people who deeply care about multiple schools in their city, but individual schools always have legions of staunch supporters, he said.
“There (would be) no shortage of people” to run, he said.
Contact Rob Rogers at email@example.com or 657-1231.