What it takes
Looking to launch a write-in campaign? Legally, candidates must be:
• At least 18
• Qualified voters in their school district
• Able to read and write
According to the New York State School Boards Association, effective school members need to be:
• Effective communicators
• Consensus builders
• Community participants
• Decision makers
• Information processors
• Team players
A time commitment. Hard decisions. A “pretty thankless job.”
And no pay.
Even with that job description, people continue to run for school board and fill the ballots for elections this month — at least in most places.
At the Schenectady City School District, only two candidates filed petitions to run for three open spots. At Duanesburg Central School District, there are two openings, and no one will be on the ballot.
The open seats will go to the residents who receive the most write-in votes during the May 20 election. If there are no or not enough write-ins to fill the positions, current school board members can appoint people to the seats.
Bob Fiorini, one of two Duanesburg school board members not seeking re-election, said that once word got out that no one had filed petitions by the April 21 deadline, people started talking about launching write-in campaigns.
“There’s probably at least a few folks interested in doing the write-in campaign for it,” he said.
Schenectady board President Cathy Lewis said she wasn’t aware of any write-in campaigns in the Schenectady race.
The lack of school board candidates isn’t a regional or statewide trend, said Al Marlin, state School Boards Association communications manager.
He said the local shortage of candidates could mean people aren’t running because they feel their district’s school board is “doing a good job.”
Fiorini, who has served as board president for the past two years and whose his first three-year term expires June 30, said he feels comfortable stepping down because the district has ample reserves and has started the process of preparing a strategic plan.
It’s time for someone else to have a voice on the board, he said.
“I’ve got a very busy professional life, and I think being a school board member is a big commitment for folks,” said Fiorini, who runs a few businesses and does software development. “I think people recognize that, and that may be why we didn’t see anybody run this year.”
Marlin agreed that the time commitment could discourage people from running.
“People have busy lives, and being a school board member is a volunteer position, and it’s a very big commitment,” he said.
In a 2011 state School Boards Association survey, 60 percent of school board members said they worked an average of six hours per week on school board business. The survey was taken by 653 people — 15 percent of the association’s membership.
A diminishing field?
Three years ago, when Fiorini first ran for school board, the race was rather contested.
Fiorini and Paul Munson — the other candidate not seeking re-election this spring — were elected over three others in the race that saw five people run for two seats.
“It seems to me that the field has diminished over the years as far as how many people are interested in running,” he said.
At Schenectady, when Lewis first ran for a seat on the board in 2010, she was one of nine candidates running for four open seats. Last year, when she ran again, there were five candidates seeking three positions.
“So I’m really surprised that we only have two candidates this year,” she said. “It seems as if we had a number of candidates each of the years in between.”
It could be that the fiscal environment of school districts has made the job less appealing, Lewis said.
Losses in funding have forced school board members to make cuts to “the programs that are meaningful to a good many students” such as sports, music and arts, she said.
“It’s a pretty thankless job in that sense, when you’re always having to look at everything in such a measured way and make decisions such as we’ve had to make in the last few years,” she said.
Since 2009, the state tax cap was enacted, state foundation aid was frozen, and the Gap Elimination Adjustment took significant state funding away from schools.
“In 2010, we weren’t looking at a property tax cap, we weren’t looking at funding being frozen as long as it has been,” she said. “The Gap Elimination Adjustment had just come in [in 2009] and people didn’t expect it to be continuing this long.”
Lewis said the late deadline to file petitions for the elections also could stop people from running. For a small city school district such as Schenectady, signatures must be filed within 20 days of the election.
“It’s a very short cycle, and that makes it very difficult, in a sense, because candidates who have decided to run don’t know if they have any competition or not,” she said.