Recent local news reports have been rife with coverage of the considerable consternation arising from the actions of the Stroudsburg School Board.
Admittedly, the actions that they have initiated--the proposed closing of neighborhood schools, the threatened dismissal of a popular superintendent, and the replacement of a long-serving, local school board solicitor--would have generated some heat, no matter how it was done or who might have supported these actions. But for those of us who observed these actions up close, there was, without a doubt, a level of public animosity directed at the board that, at least in recent memory, seemed unprecedented.
While these policies were objectionable to many district residents, we should remind ourselves that the majority of the board who supported these actions was elected by comfortable margins. While their campaigns did not emphasize these specific issues, they certainly ran on a "cost cutting" platform
So why the animosity? Isn’t the majority just pursing the agenda they were elected to execute?
Here's my theory: This new majority is "suspect." Why? Because their campaign was almost entirely financed by, indeed, they were primarily sponsored by, the realtors and their associated groups. Regardless of the majority's protestations to the contrary, they are perceived as being the handmaidens of a particular, narrow interest group. (Never mind that this group has prospered in the past by trading on the excellence of Monroe County schools. Their current obsession is the perceived onerousness of property-based school taxes.) So no matter what policies of economy the majority pursues, or how meritorious these policies may or may not be, their actions are perceived by the public as serving the interests of the realtors while placing the good of education and the interest of students in second place.
This phenomenon of a school board being the captive of a single interest group did not start with the current board. Approximately eight years ago, another single interest group managed to dominate a school board election--at that time, the teachers' union. They elected the "Pride Group," who upon election accepted a teachers contract that many deemed irresponsible and pursued a number of other policies that, just as with the current board majority, were seen as dictated by the teachers' union, thus placing the interest of teachers over that of the students and the taxpayers. They also experienced a lack of credibility.
The fact that school board elections can be dominated by narrow interests is a product of Pennsylvania's misguided policy that permits school board candidates to cross-file and run as candidates on the tickets of both parties. The ham-handed justification of this practice is that school board elections should be non-partisan. They should be driven not by party commitment, but by the real needs of providing an education of our children at an affordable cost. Supposedly, there should be no partisan differences on these issues.
Only the most naive accepts this proposition as even remotely the case. There are clearly partisan differences regarding the appropriate approach to providing education. The problem is, under the current system of electing school boards the public has no way of knowing where candidates stand on education issues.
Candidates of widely varying views can be elected on the tickets of either party.
Just a couple of examples. One member of the Stroudsburg board, a rock ribbed Republican whose primary concern is cutting costs, regardless of the consequences, was nominated by both the Democrats and the Republicans, so his name appeared under both party slates. Even more ridiculous, his nomination occurred primarily because he drew first ballot position on both party tickets in the primary election. (I witnessed this drawing and suggested to him that with his luck, he should play the lottery.) Since his name appeared on both party tickets in the general election, he couldn’t lose and was elected on the strength of a good many Democratic votes. Another example: I, myself, an active Democrat, ended up as a Republican nominee, so was forced to run as a Republican in the general election. Probably a lot of Republicans had no idea that I am not a Republican. And likewise, a lot of Democrats didn't know I am a Democrat. I’ll not mention other absurdities concerning the partisan complexion of the Stroudsburg board, except to say that you’d be surprised to learn which ones are Democrats.
My point is that the murkiness about where candidates really stand on issues would be greatly reduced if cross-filing was not permitted, if school board elections were partisan, if candidates were vetted by the parties, if a candidate's position on the issues had to square with the general policies endorsed by the long-standing platforms of the parties.
Many argue that the democratic process cannot work effectively without strong, clearly defined political parties. Why is this? Political parties keep the public’s business public. Parties facilitate holding elected officials accountable. Parties make the political process accessible and understandable to the ordinary citizen. Established parties are like branded products. Party brands can be compared to automobile brands. If a person comes from a "Ford" family, all this person needs to know about a car is that it is a Ford. The long-standing reputation, based on company traditions and owner experience, is all subsumed in the band name. A person doesn't have to be an automotive engineer to assess the characteristics of the car. The brand tells it all. Parties perform the same function. If you know the party of the candidate, you instantly know a great deal about the candidate, even if you don't know the candidate personally--which, in fact, we seldom do. When there is no meaningful party identification, all we have to go on is their campaign propaganda, which usually emphasizes numbers of kids and civic club memberships. We don't know who is really sponsoring them or what their agenda is. And we have no way to hold them accountable. If their platform is motherhood and apple pie, which is the case with most campaign propaganda, how can you judge their performance based on their platform?
While changing state laws that allow school board candidates to cross-file may be a difficult and long term project, there is no reason why our local party cannot actively vet school board candidates, call on them to stand for policies that square with our party's traditions regarding the importance of public education, and call them out if they become captives of narrow interest groups. We can also actively support those candidates who are faithful to Democratic Party principles.
No candidate need apologize for accepting support from the party because the party's platform is public, is inclusive of a wider section of interests, and facilitates public accountability. This is how democracy is supposed to work.