Southern Indiana

Some Southern Indiana educators and lawmakers are speaking out against proposed legislation that would open the door for party affiliations in school board elections.

School board rooms across the country became politically-charged battlegrounds in late 2021. Spurred by organized anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements, parents and community members disrupted meetings in Clark and Floyd counties to oppose public health mandates in the classroom.

School board elections in Indiana are currently non-partisan. But multiple lawmakers have authored bills that call for candidates to declare a political affiliation through various mechanisms.

State Rep. Ed Clere, a Republican from New Albany, said there’s room for improvement in how school boards operate. But making them more political isn’t the solution.

“We have way too much partisanship right now at every level of government, and I’d prefer to move in the other direction and try to make things less partisan,” Clere said. “Instead of focusing on party affiliation, focus on building consensus and working toward solutions.”

The various bills would reveal political affiliations in different ways.

House Bill 1240 would require school board candidates to be “nominated in the same manner as candidates for all other elected offices” and to provide a political affiliation on the ballot. HB 1042 would require candidates’ voting history for the last two primary elections to be listed.

In the other chamber, Senate Bill 144 would allow candidates to request that their party be on the ballot.

Clere said his fellow lawmakers should focus on other avenues to improve overall school board performance. He’s previously authored proposed legislation that would eliminate the state-mandated maximum pay cap and implement training opportunities for board members.

“I do think we need to take a fresh look at school boards, and we need to be looking at accountability, transparency and community engagement, and lots of other issues,” Clere said. “But making them partisan is not going to address any of those issues.”

Education officials in Clark and Floyd counties have also opposed the bills, saying they would impede board business and discourage people from running.

New Albany Floyd County Superintendent Brad Snyder said his main concern is that the legislation could shrink the pool of candidates, when officials should be finding ways to encourage people to run.

“It’s a very important job, but we often don’t have many people in any single election,” Snyder said. “And if it becomes a partisan situation, my assumption is now not only do you have to run in the general [election], but you’ll have to run in the primary. You’ll need a little bit more money and more yard signs.”

Snyder also worries the legislation could allow alternative motives to take precedence over the needs of students.

“We work for 100% of the community,” he said. “It matters not to us whether they’re Republican, Democrat, Green or Independent. The needs of the kids are the needs of the kids.”

Clarksville Community Schools board member Bill Wilson echoed Snyder’s concerns.

Wilson, who has spent four decades in education, said he’s “totally against” the proposals, because they would introduce an unneeded political element to board discussions.

“I believe in doing that, it would bring in more control by the party so that they could pass their agenda versus independent thought of just people in the general public,” Wilson said.

Several of the bills have already advanced to committee.

John Boyle is a reporter and editor at WFPL news focused on Southern Indiana. He is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.