The Janesville School District has more than twice as many students as the Milton School District, yet Milton has eight candidates running for school board while Janesville has only three. Each district has three seats up for election this spring.
What explains this discrepancy? Is Janesville more apathetic than Milton? Doubtful. More likely, a single issue in Milton—two failed referendums to build a new high school—has motivated more people to enter the race.
Democracy depends on voters having choices, but single-issue races aren’t necessarily healthy for democracy. Milton has legitimate concerns regarding outdated buildings and space constraints, but education is about more than the width of a hallway or the size of a gym. Children learn in schools, but schools don’t teach the children. Teachers make the biggest difference, and candidates would be wise to keep their focus on the classrooms and treat November’s failed referendum as one—but not the only—important issue facing the district.
The danger in electing a slate of candidates passionate about a single issue is their inability or unwillingness to give serious thought to other matters. A candidate only concerned about the physical dimensions of a school building might instinctively downplay issues affecting the classroom, from anti-bullying policies to teacher retention.
Many voters are also guilty of giving too much attention to single issues and gravitating to candidates who talk most about their particular passions. Such voters unfortunately reinforce candidates’ ill-conceived beliefs that their small list of concerns matters most.
The Janesville City Council race suffers from a similar dynamic with some candidates hyper-focused on the Monterey Dam, which the council last year voted to remove. We’ve opined repeatedly on the silliness of opposition to removing this dilapidated structure, and it would be a shame if the dam were to dominate conversations about council elections.
Janesville faces both challenges and opportunities, and candidates cannot become distracted by any sideshows. In the midst of an economic boom, the council must get right the development projects likely to affect the city for many years. How the dam’s removal alters the flow of the Rock River will become a meaningless footnote in the city’s history, but how the council, for example, configures a new tax increment finance district could determine whether the city attracts dozens of new jobs or loses them to another municipality.
Furthermore, the city is at a critical juncture with the ARISE initiative, which made great progress in 2017. But it’s important for the city to maintain the ARISE momentum. Abandoning it midstream would leave some projects, such as the town square, half done. Plans include building an interactive water fountain and a pedestrian bridge at the square, and the council needs to also follow through on two-way Court Street plans. Should the ARISE initiative hit any snags, the council would be held largely responsible.
Whether in Milton, Janesville or any other town, it’s up to the voters to hold candidates accountable for addressing all the issues affecting their communities. If some candidates seem passionate or interested in only one thing, that should be a red flag. Voters deserve better than one-dimensional candidates.