Let me set the stage for my take on how school board contests, here and across the country with the 2022 general election, have now evolved far from what this essential part of the public education system used to be just a matter of two-four years ago. In many respects, it's a story of innocence lost as the world of politics has finally taken total control of school board elections.
Public education and governance of local schools has changed considerably since the first public school – Boston Latin School – was opened in 1635, to be followed in 1647 with the first law requiring compulsory education in the Bay Colony of Massachusetts. Early school management fell to leaders of each town until 1826 when legislation in the state of Massachusetts mandated that each town had to select a separate school committee. It wasn't long after that charges/complaints about bias and graft in the operations of schools led to the solution of having a chief executive running local schools, answerable to the members of the school committee. Hence, the system we now have of a superintendent answering to a school board.
Up until the school board elections of this year, contests to be elected to a local board of education were mainly low key affairs, mostly of interest to those with children still in the education system, which partially explains the drop off in voter participation when school elections were held in the spring of each year. Michigan's move of school board elections to the fall as part of the general election helped to start addressing that issue somewhat.
I took time to look at spending reports of a few past school board elections to make sure my recollections were relatively accurate and here's what I found – most campaigns entailed the spending of $2,000 or less to gain a seat on the local board of education, a far cry from what a number of candidates spent in the 2022 contests, based on pre-election campaign reports which were due before November 8 balloting. Expect possibly higher donation/expenditure totals when final reports are filed.
Am I shocked? Not really – this is not my first rodeo, as the saying goes. My career dates back far enough to recall in the mid-1980s as the political establishment was aghast when an Oakland County state legislative race for the state House broke the $250,000 barrier, heretofore the maximum that it took to get a spot in the legislature. How quaint that seems now.
Increased spending to gain a seat at the table of the local school board just completes the advance of politics into a realm of local governance that prior to now had been immune to such forces.
The first telltale signs that non-partisan school board contests were susceptible to politics were a number of email urgings from the Oakland County Republican Party in the last couple of years to its membership asking them to attend school board meetings in the Farmington Hills and Bloomfield Hills districts to lobby on the issue of reopening the schools during the pandemic, which helped fuel the slide into the social war issues that have now become the topics de jour. Trust me, the skirts of the Democrats are not much cleaner.
But the political line in the sand was crossed this year when it came to campaign contributions to school board candidates. Of the 16 candidates seeking spots on local school boards in the Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills districts, a half dozen broke the longstanding general spending limits of past elections, ranging this year from $4,000 to as high as in the neighborhood of $15,000.
Count among them from the Birmingham school district race, Art Jack, $4,050; Nicole Spencer, $5,160; Colleen Zammit, $14,747. In the race for the Bloomfield Hills district board of education, there's Lindsay Baker, $5,184; Meagan Hill, $5,779; Paul Kolin, $5,734; and Harris Ng, $14,509, which includes a personal loan of $10,000. In this district election, four candidates – Lindsay Baker, Meagan Hill, Paul Kolin, Harris Ng – ran as a slate and it would appear they shared in joint expenditures. No problem – as a group they had at their disposal slightly over $31,000. Large sums of campaign dollars did not guarantee a candidate a seat at the table, although along with heavy spending by outside conservative groups, it did help propel culture warrior Colleen Zammit to a spot on the Birmingham board of education.
Equally interesting was the handful of would-be kingmakers who weighed in on the races when you look at the individual contributions, from a thousand to several thousand dollars made to the candidate committees and education and/or culture war PACs. Remember, the vast majority of campaign donations now and in the past hover around the $50-$100 level.
The last sign that local school board races have planted both feet in the world of politics was the unheralded involvement of outside advocacy groups and PACs, both national and Michigan-based, either in the form of endorsements, in-kind contributions or donations to promote candidates and get them across the finish line. The list is probably larger but here is what I could cobble together from reports and mailings received prior to the election: Equality Michigan Action Network; South Oakland MEA PAC; Red Wine & Blue; Get Kids Back To School; Moms For Liberty; Progress Michigan Political Action Fund; Great Lakes Education Project; and the Advancing Michigan PAC.
Add to that attempt to influence the outcome of the election the endorsements by both the local Republican and Democratic parties in the most recent election. It makes one wonder whether we may in the future actually go the route of what took place in Florida this election, where the state's governor actually issued a list of his personal endorsements for all school board races in the sunshine state. Certainly the involvement of the two major parties says, loud and clear, that leading Republicans and Democrats are viewing school boards as the latest training ground to feed the party machine for other elections in the future, much like a minor league team farm system.
There's no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Future races will involve even higher campaign spending and even greater involvement by outside players. Unfortunately, the die has been cast.
The only remaining question to be answered is whether the concept of local control of the schools will be lost in the process as outside influencers continue to take on an increasing role in determining who gets elected to the decision-making boards for local districts. The most recent school contests may have already given us a partial answer.