So much for recruiting more Janesville School Board candidates.
The board’s decision last year to start paying board members was supposed to generate more candidates. But only three people—all incumbents—signed up by last week’s filing deadline for the April election.
It’s a big disappointment because the school district faces major challenges, and voters are unlikely to witness robust debates without a contested race. We can only speculate as to why nobody except the incumbents stepped up to run. Are residents apathetic toward the school district? Are they content with current leadership?
The latter would seem odd given that property tax bills jumped more than 10% in December, and some of that tax increase was because of the district’s questionable budgetary maneuvers. The school board approved a preliminary budget Sept. 10 with a tax levy slated to drop to $35.7 million, but board members raised no objections Oct. 22 when the administration offered last-minute changes to increase the levy to $40.76 million to pay down more debt.
Meanwhile, the board is contemplating a referendum later this year because the district faces $130 million in building maintenance needs, including $77.8 million classified by a consultant as urgent. Without any challengers in the race, the incumbents won’t feel pressure to outline their spending priorities. Voters are stuck with the incumbents—Kevin Murray, Kathy Hurda and Karl Dommerhausen—whether they agree with them or not.
Perhaps the most concerning issue heading into the April election is the district’s slipping academic performance, at least according to the state Department of Public Instruction. Its latest 64.2 score puts the district on the cusp of a D grade of “meeting few expectations.” Janesville schools have maintained a solid reputation through the years, but a falling score could undermine that.
The state report card system is imperfect, but the scores matter because they’re one of the few metrics available for the public to compare districts. The scores can factor into people’s decisions about whether to locate to an area, making perception of the district as important as the reality.
There’s no shortage of weighty topics on this board’s agenda.
National politics might attract more attention, but there are more opportunities to effect change at the local level. There’s also less partisanship at the local level, which often makes running for local office less stressful and sometimes even fun.
Plus, the board approved last year paying board members an annual $2,400 stipend. The compensation aims to cover costs incurred by board members having to leave work or arrange child care.
How can it be that nobody except the incumbents felt inspired to run?
Residents’ reluctance to serve on the board leaves us dumbfounded, and their lack of interest in leading the Janesville School District is a shame.