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Some rural school districts struggling to find board trustees

Education

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The city of Dubois | EastIdahoNews.com file photo

BOISE — Lisa Shenton has spent years watching school board elections play out in the Clark County School District 161.

If you can call them that.

Often, no one runs, so trustees are left searching for people to apply. “Basically, it turns into begging,” said Shenton, a former trustee now working as the board’s clerk.

A lack of candidates and applicants has been a longtime issue for the rural East Idaho district of some 120 students, said Shenton.

Clark County’s not alone in the struggle. Some Idaho districts see high levels of competition during trustee elections or when a seat is vacated. The Boise School Board had 13 applicants this month to replace former Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan as a trustee.

Yet others regularly grapple with a dearth of candidates, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the Idaho School Boards Association. According to 82 board clerks who responded:

  • At least 19 school board seats had no candidates in the November 2019 election.
  • At least 129 of 185 open seats had just one candidate.
  • Only 33 open seats had two candidates, while just 9 seats had three or more candidates.

Numbers like these have concerned Idaho School Boards Association Executive Director Karen Echeverria for years.

“When one zone is not represented, it has an impact on the decision making of the Board,” she told EdNews. “And, it means that one whole area of the district is not represented.”

Trustees are elected to four-year terms in November elections during odd years. They are responsible for hiring superintendents, who oversee what’s often a rural communities’ largest employer. They also have say on spending more than $2 billion in annual state taxpayer dollars and the education of 307,000 children in Idaho’s public school system.

They aren’t paid, yet they have heavier impacts on local property owners than a presidential election.

Shenton has witnessed the struggle firsthand in rural Clark County, where people are often “spread” between the city council, county commission and other local leadership and voluntary roles.

“It’s tough when you only have 500 people in your town,” she said.

Some rural communities have more luck than others. Sugar-Salem School District 322 business manager Becky Bates worked as the local school board clerk for six years, up until last October. Patrons in her rural district of some 370 students aren’t clambering to fill vacant school board seats, she said, but they have turned out to run in every local election she could remember.

Bates couldn’t recall a time when the board had to appoint a trustee because no one ran. “I wouldn’t say there’s a real shortage here,” she said.

But Sugar-Salem is different than many other small Idaho towns, Bates acknowledged. The district borders Rexburg, home to Brigham Young University-Idaho.

“We have a lot of professors here and others who might be more interested in something like being on a school board,” she said.

Shelton said: “We’d love to see people show more interest here, but that probably just isn’t going to happen anytime soon.”

This article was Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on April 8, 2021.

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