Candidates have 19 days left to file to run in the May 9 school board elections, and education advocates hope to encourage more people to run in those three weeks.
“There’s a lot more community members than there are elected people, so if you don’t like the direction that your community is going in, run,” said Laurisa Schutt, executive director of First State Educate. It’s a local advocacy group whose mission is to catalyze radical change in education by activating the power of Delawareans.
Competition ultimately benefits the community, said Helen Salita, a campaign manager for ACLU Delaware.
“People should be able to have a choice to ask questions, to see where candidates stand on issues and then reflect on what’s best for communities,” Salita said. “If there’s only one candidate running… it really takes away the community’s voice and their ability to say what they think is best.”
This election will have 23 seats open across 16 school districts.
So far, only seven candidates have filed to run.
Last year, 42 candidates ran for 19 seats.
John Marinucci, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association, said it’s too early to appraise the numbers of candidates.
This year’s filing deadline is March 3.
“We may have some people that are in the process of filing and they’re not considered a candidate yet because they’re still in the process,” he said. “There are other incumbents that just haven’t filed yet and I’m sure they plan to file.”
Sussex County is struggling to find candidates because there’s a large population of elderly individuals who are retired with no desire to run, said Marilyn Booker, chair of the Sussex County GOP.
“I keep asking people if they are interested in running or know anyone who is,” she said. “We do have some candidates upstate, but I don’t think that we have anything going on down here.”
Jessica Tyndall, an incumbent Cape Henlopen school board member, is the only filed candidate in Sussex County.
Before candidates’ names can be posted on the Department of Elections’ website, they have to complete a criminal background check and a child registry check.
Unlike legislative elections, if nobody files, the incumbent school board member automatically gets another term, and they do not have to campaign.
“That is really important for people to know,” Schutt said. “Sometimes people think they can sort of get a second chance, but you can’t once the filing deadline has passed.”
This year’s filing deadline is March 3.
School board competition
Although there’s been dozens of public commenters calling out individual school board members throughout different districts, many open seats do not currently have competition.
One example: Brandywine School Board member Ralph Ackerman angered a lot of people because of a shouting match during Monday’s board meeting Numerous posts on social media said he should be voted out of office.
“He needs to go,” one post said.
Ackerman already has filed for re-election.
As of now, he has no opposition.
“There needs to be competition,” Marinucci said. “Just because somebody may be upset with what a school board member has done or said, or some voting that they’ve done or their actions that they’ve taken, does not necessarily mean that they want to run against them.”
Competition also brings out voters, Salita said.
Because voter participation in school board elections is so low, typically 10% of those registered, a single vote holds more weight than it would in a general election, she said.
“The margins are going to be slim and your vote could literally decide the outcome of a race,” she said. “So those who vote have such a huge impact on their community.”
School board terms are four years.
School board members are making life decisions that affect students, faculty and staff, Marinucci said, that alters how the district progresses.
While education organizations and others want to see more candidates, they also want people to realize that school board positions are essentially voluntary, unpaid positions that can be thankless.
“It is a difficult job and it is a time-consuming job,”Marinucci said. “There are some folks that want to engage in the process, but they don’t necessarily want to assume the burden of being a board member making those decisions.”
It’s more important that they’re engaged with the board and speak up when they have concerns, he said.
Across the country, school safety, critical race theory, sexuality and gender studies are hot topics in schools across the nation, but Marinucci doesn’t think one-issue candidates are successful in their campaigns.
“They may run because they’re upset about one particular thing, but those candidates, if elected, usually find very quickly that there’s so much more to being a school board member than just dealing with that one issue,” Marinucci said.
Salita agreed with Marinucci that single issues aren’t typically the reason someone runs for a school board seat.
“The vast majority of candidates are those who want to work for the common good, because they reflect the values of their community,” she said. “They want to make sure that schools are welcoming and safe.”
Booker thinks low test scores, school safety and the “woke agenda” of schools will be key motivators for people running.
“We need to do better with these children, and there needs to be more discipline,” she said. “These poor teachers are being asked to be everything to everybody, and that’s not why they went into teaching. I feel sorry for them.”
She said schools are sexualizing students by teaching gender and sexuality studies and creating a victim mentality among students who are underprivileged.
This is why Booker believes the more options voters have, the better.
“Competition in everything is good because then you have a meritocracy,” she said.
The nine open seats in New Castle County are in the Appoquinimink, Brandywine, Christina, Colonial and Red Clay school districts.
The seven open seats in Kent County are in the Caesar Rodney, Capital, Lake Forest, Milford and Smyrna school districts.
The seven open seats in Sussex County are in the Cape Henlopen, Delmar, Indian River, Laurel, Seaford and Woodbridge school districts.
“It’s a nine-week campaign, not a two-year campaign,” Schutt said.
She pointed out that groups like First State Educate, League of Women Voters, ACLU Delaware, Moms Demand Action and others survey candidates as a way to share their positions and goals on various topics with the community.
“It’s also an incredible way to get to know your neighbors, especially post COVID,” she said. “I do think this is even more important given what we’re facing with our socialization skills after the pandemic.”
Being a school board member is an honorable and influential role, Schutt said.
School board members make policy and hold the district superintendent accountable, Schutt.
“You can really make a strong change in your local community,” she said. “It’s the most local-oriented thing you could do for your neighbors.
Here’s who has filed as of Thursday, Feb. 9:
- Brandywine (2 open seats): incumbent Ralph Ackerman
- Christina (2 open seats): Douglas Manley
- Caesar Rodney (1 open seat): Tawanna Brinkley
- Milford (3 open seats): Ashlee Connell, Jennifer Massotti
- Smyrna (1 open seat): Bobbi Jo Webber
- Cape Henlopen (1 open seat): incumbent Jessica Tyndall
For state information about how to run for a school board position, click here.
Raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Jarek earned a B.A. in journalism and a B.A. in political science from Temple University in 2021. After running CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s YouTube channel, Jarek became a reporter for the Bucks County Herald before joining Delaware LIVE News.
Jarek can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at (215) 450-9982. Follow him on Twitter @jarekrutz
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