W hen last Monday’s deadline for candidates to file a petition to run for a seat on the Whitehall Board of Education came and went, only one person had submitted their name for three open spots.
Whitehall is one of several local districts that do not have enough candidates to fill the upcoming vacancies on the board of education. Even the BOCES Board of Education, which can draw candidates from multiple counties, has only four board members for five open spots.
According to Virginia Rivette, vice president of the board and a member for 13 years, the lack of candidates is a new problem for the board.
“Some years we’ve had just enough but as long as I’ve been here, there’s always been enough to at least fill the vacancies.”
One reason for the lack of interest may be the current fiscal climate, in which the cost of operating a district continues to rise, primarily due to soaring pensions and health benefits, while state aid continues to decline. At the same time, the state has mandated that school districts keep the rate of tax increases at or below 2 percent.
Those factors have put many districts and, by extension, their boards of education in the unenviable position of having to eliminate positions.
“The times are very discouraging to people for these jobs,” Superintendent James Watson said during last week’s board meeting.
Since the 2009-10 school year the board has eliminated about two dozen jobs and reduced a number of other positions to part-time.
Mark Deluca, who has served on the board of education for 12 years and is currently its president, said some of those cuts could be neighbors or friends.
“Being a small district, you know everybody when you cut jobs. It’s tough,” he said.
“I think the biggest thing is the money is so tight, and the state has its mandates and are constantly cutting aid, it’s making the job of coming up with money more difficult.
Our hands are getting more tied every year.”
Rivette said the state has so many controls over what districts and their boards can do, that some members may become discouraged.
“You come on with these big ideas, but the state has so many controls,” she said.
Lack of engagement
But she views the lack of candidates as more of a function of declining volunteerism that has plagued other civic organizations and government bodies.
“I think some of it is for the same reasons why the EMS and the fire company have had problems getting volunteers,” Rivette said. “Everybody’s lives are so busy and everyone is consumed with making enough money to get by.”
Being on the board can be a big time commitment. There are board and committee meetings that consume several evenings every month. And many members feel it’s part of their duty to attend sporting events and other school functions.
“You don’t want to lose touch with what is happening,” she said.
Apathy may also play a role.
“I think it’s like everything else, people aren’t interested or can’t be bothered,” said James Huntington, who at almost 15 years is the longest tenured member of the board. “There’s just too much going on in people’s lives.”
The board has three options to fill the vacancies: appoint members to the board; hold a special election; or do nothing.
Doing nothing is likely not a long-term option. The board would still function as a nine-member board and therefore would require five votes to pass any action. If three members were unable to attend a meeting, the board would be unable to achieve anything even by consensus.
The other options aren’t ideal either, as the board would have to find people who are interested in the position.
“If you can’t find anyone to fill out a petition, I don’t know who we’d ask,” Deluca said.
Rivette said whenever the board has needed to fill vacancy before, they’ve turned to past members.
The board is going to seek advice from its legal counsel and will make a decision after next month’s election.
Huntington, who said he was surprised by the lack of turnout, said the job can be difficult, but he doesn’t necessarily agree with people who say it’s a thankless job.
“It’s difficult but at the same time it’s rewarding,” he said. “When you see the number of college-bound students has doubled in the last 10 to 15 years, that’s very rewarding.”