Gazette opinion: Single-member law generates Heights trustee flap

2010-06-21T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Single-member law generates Heights trustee flap The Billings Gazette
June 21, 2010 12:00 am

Billings school trustee Mary Jo Fox, who has represented the Heights area west of Main Street for five years, has put her Alkali Creek home up for sale. Fox says she wants to buy a residence in the Indian Cliffs subdivision west of Zimmerman Trail where she will continue to care for her elderly mother. This situation created uncertainty for Fox, who doesn’t want to leave the board and hasn’t yet sold her Heights residence, and for the School Board, which will appoint her successor. Some community members called on Fox to resign immediately.

Late last week, Fox notified district clerk Leo Hudetz that she will resign on Sept 1. With that notice,  the process of advertising the vacancy and getting a good pool of Heights resident applicants can commence. The board should be able to name her successor as Fox leaves, so the seat won’t be empty this summer as the board considers a bond issue, finalizes the annual budget and starts working with a new superintendent.

The quandary posed by Fox’s planned crosstown move points to another oddity of the single-member district law: Children in the neighborhood where Fox intends to live are bused to Heights schools. However, Indian Cliffs subdivision is in a West End trustee district.

All over Billings, there are many examples of students whose families live in one trustee district but attend school in another. The student population of our growing city doesn’t line up neatly with the location of schools that were built 25 to 100 years ago.

Single-member trustee districts have generated fewer candidates than at-large trustee elections did. Voters usually have seen one or zero candidates on single-member ballots. Trustees more often than not have been chosen by default or by board appointment.

Fox, for example, was appointed to the board after an elected trustee resigned because her family moved across town. Since then, Fox has been the only candidate on the west Heights ballot.

It’s time to acknowledge that single-member districts haven’t enhanced the democratic process and to return to at-large elections that give all Billings voters choices on the ballot.

Meanwhile, we thank Fox for providing the board a date for her resignation that allows time to name a replacement before she leaves.

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