SELAH, Wash. – It’s a problem that plagues many school districts in the state — getting people to run for the school board.
In the 2015 election, 78 percent of school board races in Washington state went uncontested. Some local school districts have not seen contested races in several years.
Now Selah School District officials hope, with voters’ help, to buck the trend.
“It’s important that the community feels it has a voice in the school district,” Selah board President Kelliann Ergeson said.
Selah district voters will decide in the Feb. 14 special election if the school board should be restructured to make two of its five seats open to anyone living anywhere within the district. Currently, all five seats are tied to specific geographic districts.
It’s a configuration already used in three other Yakima County school districts.
“We’ve always had somebody step up,” Mabton school Superintendent Minerva Morales said about having the at-large seats.
Eighty-three of the state’s 295 school districts have at-large members on their boards. In Yakima County, Mabton, Union Gap and Highland each have two at-large members, while all Yakima school district board members are at-large.
Statewide, 185 of the 830 school district races were contested, according to the Washington State School Directors’ Association.
In Yakima County, just 36 out of 211 school board races were contested in the last eight years, according to county election records.
In Selah, the last contested race was in 2011, when Kathy Lambert defeated James Sebree.
Michael Wilson, spokesman for the state school directors association, said contested races are more likely in urban school districts, where there is a larger population from which to draw candidates.
The state association tries to make races more competitive by getting the word out about elections and doing workshops for current and prospective candidates, Wilson said.
But he and others conceded that can be a hard sell, given the time commitment and the low to no pay.
“They may not want to put themselves out in the public eye,” said Martha Rice, Yakima school board president. “School board members also don’t get paid.”
Rice, who was appointed to the board in 1998, said incumbents usually don’t face a challenger. But, if a seat is open, she said there will be a couple people interested, especially if it is a midterm appointment. She said a recent vacancy on the board brought out about eight applicants for the position.
“I get the sense that the people who are interested in the board wait for a vacancy,” Rice said. She said there is an informal network of people who attend board meetings regularly and pass the word when there’s a vacancy.
Ergeson hopes creating an at-large seat will encourage more people to run for the board. She believes that some people want to run, but may not be able to because the seat in their district is not up for election when they’re ready to serve.
An at-large seat, Ergeson said, could remove that obstacle, and possibly create an additional opportunity for people to run.
Mabton’s configuration was in place before Morales became superintendent almost seven years ago. However, she believes it has helped the district overcome the challenge of finding people to serve on the board in a small town with a large number of agricultural workers.
“It has helped in the area of vacancies on the board,” Morales said, noting that the at-large seat draws from a larger pool than one tied to a district.
Ballots are being sent out this week, and must be returned by Feb. 14. In addition to Selah’s board issue, Grandview, West Valley and Zillah district voters are being asked to approve bonds to renovate or replace school buildings.
Prosser School District, in Benton County, is also seeking approval on a bond to build a new high school and overhaul all three of the district’s elementary schools.