Borough voters should decide issue of school board districts

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

A committee appointed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is presently finishing up its review of whether voters should decide on Oct. 1 to change the composition of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District from an at-large basis (all vote for all members) to a district basis (each member elected by voters in that person's neighborhood).

The borough is spread out with substantial communities separated by long distances from the population centers of Kenai and Soldotna. This is one reason the borough assembly is apportioned into nine districts with the representatives elected by residents in each district. In an at-large system there is the probability that a greater than proportional number of representatives will be elected from the population centers. And they can even be more concentrated --at one time a few years ago, four of the seven school board members in Anchorage lived within a few blocks of each other. When citizens in outlying areas feel disenfranchised, they tend to vote down bond issues to vent their frustration.

One argument the opponents of districts use is that the district representatives will insist on a proportional share of spending in their district. This hasn't happened in other jurisdictions -- each board member still has only one vote; the majority tends to vote to fund real needs.

If the decision is made to have voting districts, there are a couple of other issues to decide.

One is whether to have seven or nine voting districts. The advantage of having seven is that the voting districts would be different from the nine assembly districts, so that politicians would find it harder to use a seat on the school board as a stepping stone to the assembly. The cost of having two more school board members would be about $23,000 (.02 of 1 percent of the district's budget).

The other is whether to have district residency by voting at-large. This would eliminate one big advantage of districts -- the ability of candidates to physically and financially wage a personal campaign. Also, with at-large voting, a candidate could be elected who was defeated in the district.

An issue is surfacing which we have seen before -- the school district trying to avoid change and attempting to influence a decision rightly entrusted to voters. Fifteen years ago, we saw the district juggling class sizes to enrage parents after the assembly made a small cut in the school budget. Assemblymen who voted for the cut were targeted at re-election time. When the money was restored, a large part of it went to large raises for school administrators.

Today we see an Oct. 16 memo from the superintendent opposing districts. On of the reasons is "finding quality board members willing to serve could be an issue." Some of us would argue that there are thousands of "quality" board members available.

Perhaps the district should heed the words of the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District responding to the effort of one community attempting to secede from the district: "I've not taken a position on the secession efforts ... these are issues for the communities to decide."

Douglas Stark has testified at Alaska apportionment hearings for the last 30 years. He is the author of a book on local government election practices titled "Special Districts or Special Dynasties: Democracy Denied." He lives outside of Homer.



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