From coronavirus to extra candidates, this year’s school board candidates face a heightened challenge to win the upcoming election.
In most Oyster River School Board elections, 2-3 seats are on the ballot, which are usually unopposed. This year, four positions are up for election on March 9th, all with multiple candidates. Due to the number of opponents, each candidate faces a heightened challenge to be elected.
With the potential of over half the board changing, a lot is at stake. According to superintendent James Morse, “what makes this election so unusual is that the school board could literally completely transform and go in a whole new direction if candidates that are running who are not the current candidates get elected.” Things like the strategic plan, the new middle school, and various committees could be altered if many newcomers are on board.
One reason for the number of candidates is the COVID-19 pandemic. In questionnaires released by the PTO and Teachers’ Guild, most candidates provided the pandemic as one of their main reasons for running. Morse and school board member Denise Day speculate that the coronavirus caused more community members to pay attention to the school board and its decisions, making them more inclined to get involved.
With added candidates comes added pressure on voters to make informed decisions on voting day. Day says, “where there are so many candidates, I think that people in the community are going to have to pay closer attention to be able to find out where each of these candidates stand on the issues.”
Moreover, the school board is not the only election. Lee resident and selectperson candidate Katrin Kasper says, “we’re not just voting on March 9th for school board, we’re also voting for our selectpeople, and all the other offices in town, and all the warrant articles, and there’s a lot of research that needs to go into every single question. It’s a very short period of time to get a lot of answers, so it’s really challenging.”
Voters can inform themselves about the candidates through forums sponsored by the elementary school PTOs. Giana Gelsey, chair of the Moharimet PTO, came up with the idea for these forums. “When I observed that we had twelve candidates, which was an unprecedented number for our school board, and then there were clearly contentious issues, I thought that a one-night forum was probably going to be inadequate,” Gelsey says. The district’s forum was cancelled for reasons outside the PTO’s control, leaving their two evenings of questions as the only live candidate events.
These candidate nights are one of the primary ways of informing voters’ decisions. Kasper says the pandemic is hindering her usual ways of learning about candidates because “I can’t just walk up to somebody and talk to them the way I could, or run into them. It’s not easy to go into a room full of a lot of other people, and kind of remain quiet and just listen. It’s harder to just get that kind of free-flowing, easy knowledge.”
This is also taking a toll on candidates. Dan Klein, the incumbent for Madbury’s seat, says in most years he would meet informally with voters to discuss issues. The pandemic prevents safe in-person meetings, so Klein is turning to electronic means, which he describes as “awkward and clunky” compared to face-to-face conversation.
However, Kasper says online communication has some benefits. “When you’re on a Zoom call, everybody has the same weight, and the same value… People listen more, and interrupt less, because there’s more of a moderated conversation.”
These opportunities to learn about candidates are necessary for voters to be sure they are adequately represented in decision-making. Voters look for many things in candidates, which is why making sure they connect with electorates is so important to school board hopefuls. Kasper says one thing she’s “looking for in a candidate is somebody who’s really well-rounded.” She hopes each board member provides “a diverse voice so that when making decisions we’re not missing obvious things.”
Day says a valuable skill for board members is “to be a good listener, because we need to listen to school personnel, to community members, to each other… I also think it’s important that a school board member have the time that’s required to be able to devote to the job.” Morse agrees, adding that “the most important characteristic is have an open mind, to be inquisitive, to be willing to look at information and draw conclusions that aren’t biased.”
Voters also care where each candidate stands on policies. While in the past there have not been many options, this year voters seek candidates who share their opinions to be sure the district goes in the direction they want. The main topic on most people’s minds is COVID-19. However, coronavirus is not a forever issue. Candidates need to address other matters as well.
One of the school board’s biggest responsibilities is the budget, which needs to be created yearly. Many factors affect budgeting, such as state funding, salaries, and the district’s overall needs. This is an especially difficult undertaking now, where the economy is unstable due to the pandemic.
Another district priority is antiracism. Gelsey says the most commonly asked questions voters sent the PTOs were about inclusion. Currently, the school board has a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee which evaluates curriculum and recommends changes to policies. These changes need to be approved by the school board to take effect, so voters must pay attention to how candidates feel to ensure actions taken align with their opinions.
The results of the election will make clear how voters stand on these issues and more. On March 9, Durham residents can vote between 7am-7pm at ORHS, Madbury residents can vote between 11am-7pm at the Madbury Town Hall, and Lee residents have select voting times ending at 7pm.
Article by Zoe Selig