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Indiana Capital Chronicle

 Feb. 9, 2023

Indiana voters could get to decide whether their local school board elections should be partisan under a new draft of Republican-backed legislation that lawmakers say would provide “more transparency” about candidates.

House Bill 1428, authored by Rep. J.D. Prescott (above), R-Union City, seeks to add political party identifications to what are now nonpartisan school board elections throughout the state.

But unlike other versions of the bill that have previously circulated through the Indiana Statehouse to no avail, Prescott’s legislation provides “local control” over the issue.

The House elections committee adopted an amendment to the bill on Wednesday giving school boards an option to vote to become partisan. It also allows voters in a school corporation to decide on the elections via a ballot referendum.

 

The measure advanced 6-4 from committee — with Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, joining Democrats in opposition — and now heads to the full House chamber. It’s a novel move, given that Indiana’s GOP leaders have consistently resisted efforts to let Hoosiers vote on referendums for other issues like abortion rights or legalizing cannabis.

“This is all about transparency for the voters — give our voters as much information as possible before they cast their vote at the ballot box,” Prescott said. “This could really be tailored to your individual communities now, whether your community wants to move forward with this process or not.”

Currently, Indiana is among 41 states where local school board elections are held without any party identification on the ballot for candidates.

A separate proposal under consideration in the current session would instead create a blanket requirement for school board candidates to identify as a Republican, Democrat or Independent. The bill has yet to advance from the Senate elections committee, however.

Locals could decide

As amended, Prescott’s bill gives Hoosier communities three options.

  • The first is to do nothing at all, meaning school board elections in a particular district would remain nonpartisan. That’s the default option laid out in the bill.
  • Another provision says sitting school board members can decide on their own to vote for their seats to become partisan. According to the bill, they can do so as early as Jan. 1, 2024
  • A third option would permit the decision to be made through a petition process requiring signatures of 500 voters or 5% of voters in the district, whichever is lesser. A successful petition would put the question on the ballot

Whether through a school board vote or voter-led public question, school board candidates would either have to run in partisan primaries in order to be nominated for the general election, or forgo a primary altogether but have to use a partisan label in the general election.

As the bill is written now, there’s no way for a school board or community to opt-out if they later change their minds about the partisan school board races, however.

Candidates for school board additionally cannot work for that school corporation, according to the latest version of the bill.

Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil, who authored the amendments adopted to the bill, said he’s seeking to give Hoosiers more say in local elections.

“I certainly understand that there have been a lot of opinions on this. It has been a hot topic for a lot of people,” Morrison said. “This is something where we are saying that there are some communities that want this and there are some communities that don’t, and through this (amended bill), they will be able to make that choice.”

School boards association still opposed

The bill drew more than two hours of testimony on Wednesday.

Those who supported the proposal said forcing partisan labels will increase transparency, arguing, too, that school board races are already partisan — just not in name.

Many of the education advocates and school board members who testified were opposed to the measure, though.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said they oppose partisan school board elections because “keeping the labels out helps people come together at the local level.”

Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association (ISBA), said politics will “further divide our communities” and compromise the ability of school boards to “serve the best interests of children.”

“This invites politics to the boardrooms to the detriment of children. This bill is a solution looking for a problem,” Spradlin said. “Our school communities should not be governed by politics. There’s no Democrat or Republican way to teach children.”

While testifying against a separate bill in the 2022 session that sought to make all Indiana school board races partisan, Spradlin said the ISBA recommended moving to a hybrid system, where local voters would decide whether to create a partisan school board for their school district.

The school boards association has changed its position, however. Instead, Spradlin said the ISBA is now recommending lawmakers support Senate Bill 177, which would move the candidate filing deadline for school board races up by 60 days.

Spradlin said the shift would give voters more time to get to know candidates. The bill unanimously advanced from the Senate chamber Monday and now heads to the House.

Still, he conceded that if lawmakers pass legislation to make school board elections partisan, Prescott’s bill “would probably be the best option.”

“If it becomes law, we would want local communities to exercise their rights that you’re providing through this legislation,” Spradlin said.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com.

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