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Thursday, April 4, 2013 11:04 am

Will school controversies bring voters to the polls?

Tuesday, April 9, is Election Day and, if past trends hold true, only a small percentage of voters will head to the polls to select new representatives to guide Springfield’s beleaguered education system. In 2009, a comparable consolidated election registered a dismal 18 percent voter turnout across the entire county. Worse yet, fewer than 4,500 people determined the outcomes in the three Springfield Board of Education subdistricts with races that year. There could be a higher turnout this year, however, if voters wish to register dissatisfaction with recent district actions.

All seven subdistricts are up for election this year and the political landscape is varied. Three current school board members decided not to run for reelection. Two other incumbents are in contested races and the remaining two are running unopposed. One seat will be filled by a newcomer with no election challenge and the final two subdistricts have challengers but no incumbents. Therefore, the board taking over in May will have at least three new members. That could increase to five if voters choose to send all incumbents packing.

It’s hard to know who will vote next week, but likely voters include individuals with a direct stake in the outcome, like district employees, highly engaged, often partisan, voters and older voters who always vote. Low voter turnout generally favors incumbents. Challengers will have to flip voters inclined to support incumbents and get more people fired up and out to vote.

Incumbents typically focus their messaging on positive achievements while in office and challengers generally look for negative perceptions or mistakes to exploit. The wild card for challengers is that there is just so much to exploit. The flood of bad news pouring from every crevasse at 1800 W. Monroe gives challengers hope.

• Board members Funderberg, White and Mueller accused Dr. Walter Milton of dishonesty in the budget process.

• A community budget review committee was formed, despite opposition from the superintendent and some board members.

• The district finance director stepped down abruptly.

• A Lanphier High School teacher, accused of having sexual relations with students, was subsequently found to lack high school teaching qualifications.

• The human resources director resigned in a move that leaders of the black community say was forced.

• A private, board-negotiated separation agreement for Dr. Milton was revealed by the media.
A confidentiality agreement was signed, placing gags on the superintendent, the board and any interim superintendent hired.

• The Community Budget Review Committee recommended deep cuts, including closure of the Capital College Preparatory Academy and Iles and Ball Charter Middle Schools.

• In a sharply divided vote, $6M of budget cuts were made.

• A majority on the board voted twice to close CCPA.

• Estimates of savings from closing CCPA were revised downward after numbers were questioned.

• The same majority of school board members rejected a compromise to reconstitute CCPA as a school-within-a-school.

• CCPA student data was leaked, an apparent breach of federal and state law, and Springfield Police launched an investigation.

• The NAACP called for a reopening of the consent decree, which could lead to a possible discrimination lawsuit.

• Several candidates – Zimmers, Eastvold and Jones – expressed willingness to reconstitute CCPA as a school-within-a-school.

Conventional wisdom suggests that these controversies present a problem for incumbents. But where voters place blame for the chaos could determine who gains in the end. In general, incumbents Funderburg and White want voters to direct blame outward, mainly toward Dr. Milton. Their campaign messages ask voters to look ahead and reward them for making hard choices and promoting fiscal discipline.

Most likely Mike Zimmers and Teresa Jones, challengers to White and Funderburg, hope voters will directly connect the past’s disorder to what they say is an incompetent board which lacks strong leadership and professionalism. They want voters to ask themselves how matters could have spiraled so far out of control and whether they should trust the future with those who have so misguided the past.

In the Eastvold vs. Moore race, Eastvold has been most outspoken and disapproving of the current board, while Moore’s critique has been muted. Candidates in the Flamini, Pierce and Shafer race indirectly acknowledge district problems by presenting broad statements about the need for improvements.

The closure of CCPA is another issue that could sway voter selection. Incumbent candidates who voted for closure present it as a gutsy action needed to focus resources toward the many and away from the few. Those favoring reconstituting the program as a school-within-a school believe in school choice, want to reward and expand programs that work, show a willingness to compromise and creatively solve problems.

Hopefully, Springfield’s voters will turn out in record numbers to make their voices heard. There is much at stake in this election and 15,000 children are counting on them to get it right.

Sheila Stocks-Smith is former education liaison for the City of Springfield. She has made political contributions to school board candidates.

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