Gazette opinion: Poor turnout justifies return to at-large trustee vote

2010-03-29T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Poor turnout justifies return to at-large trustee voteGazette staff The Billings Gazette
March 29, 2010 12:10 am  • 

Sometimes a popular idea that initially sounded wonderful simply fails to meet expectations. Such is the case with Billings switching to single-member school trustee districts.

Reports on the lack of school board candidates crop up every spring as certain as the appearance of crocus and dandelions. This year, five of seven elementary district seats are up for election — two of the elections were triggered by trustees resigning midterm. When the filing deadline passed last Thursday evening, two districts had one candidate each, one district had zero candidates. Only two of the five districts needing candidates will see a choice on the May 4 mail ballots.

Last year, Billings Public Schools didn’t have any actively contested trustee races. Two candidates filed in one district just hours before the deadline and one quickly tried to withdraw. Otherwise, there weren’t two names on any ballot.

Unfortunately, since 2003 when voters overwhelmingly supported creating single-member districts, they’ve had fewer trustee choices to make.

Chosen by default

The single-member district idea was generated by Billings neighborhood task force members who successfully lobbied to change state law and then collected 6,000 signatures to put single-member districts on the May 2003 ballot. The intent was to assure more diverse geographic representation on the board. Proponents hoped it would encourage more people to run for trustee because they would need to campaign only within one of seven districts and not citywide. The Gazette editorial board also endorsed the change, noting that it could bring closer ties between citizens and the board.

Unfortunately, the only hope of single-member districts that has come to fruition is geographic diversity. Most of the seven trustees now serving are the only person from their district who filed for the office, or were elected by write-in votes after no one filed or were appointed by the school board.

This isn’t a criticism of the trustees now on the board. Again, we commend them for stepping forward, especially when others did not. But we suspect that more than one has hoped that other good candidates would file so the incumbent could retire knowing the district leadership would be in capable, new hands.

Incumbent commitment

Incumbent Heights trustee Mary Jo Fox said as much when she explained to a Gazette reporter why she waited till the last day to file as the only candidate in her district: “I would have welcomed somebody to give it a try.”

Billings residents should switch back to an at-large election for the seven elementary trustees. Prior to single-member districts, voters did have a choice every year. Voters vetted the candidates; top vote getters got elected; those who drew less voter support did not go on the board.

Since single-member districts have been created,  voters have had little ongoing input on the choice of the trustees who lead Montana’s largest school district. The responsibilities of trustees are huge: a budget of more the $100 million, 30 schools and 15,000 students. The folks who serve on the Billings School Board should be vetted by voters. That’s not happening regularly anymore.

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