School Board Races: Indiana politics expert weighs in on how politics affect non-partisan races
School board races are supposed to be non-partisan races, candidates don’t identify with any political party on the ballot. But that doesn’t mean they can’t advertise themselves as liberal or conservative.
Andy Downs is president emeritus of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. He said that, regardless of a race being non-partisan, there are certain policies and ideas associated with either conservatives or liberals.
And this, he said, can give a candidate the edge.
“If you are able to campaign as a conservative or as a liberal, then you know you have a natural affinity with either Republicans or Democrats.”
In Northwest Allen county, the local school district has three board seats up for election this year. For two of the seats, there are six candidates running – five of which have been campaigning as conservatives.
Downs said Northwest Allen is a heavily conservative-leaning area, and the question becomes “are elected officials a representation of the community, or do elected officials lead the community in a particular direction?”
“And the reality, of course, is there’s a little bit of both there. If you don’t reflect the community it’s awfully hard to get elected. But once you are in a position of authority, the decisions you make do shape the direction of the community.”
Downs said the relative homogeneity of Northwest Allen, in terms of demographics and political leanings, has made organizing parents and community members against or for certain issues a little bit easier.
“It’s going to be easier to rile people up and to get them to speak out without opposition.”
Conservative groups like Moms for Liberty Allen County and Purple for Parents Indiana have endorsed conservative candidates. A newer group, the Committee to Support Public Education in Northwest Allen County, has endorsed the two incumbents and one other candidate.
Northwest Allen County Schools received criticism from more conservative parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, complaints at school board meetings have moved to the teaching of certain books and transgender students in bathrooms.
Downs said large races for local positions like this aren’t entirely unheard of. He said it comes down to the speed at which people can receive information from all over the world now.
“It happens that every now and then, something grabs peoples’ attention and it holds it long enough that they file for office and they actually run for office. We’re sort of experiencing some of that right now.”
Two house bills were introduced this year, 1182 and 1145, that looked to make school board races partisan. HB 1182 died in committee after educators, administrators and school board members from across the state opposed it and it received no public support in testimony.
Downs said party lines can be used as a shortcut for voters, when they don’t know much about either candidate.
“There historically was research that demonstrated that non-partisan elections had lower turnout than partisan elections.”
He said, even in a nonpartisan race, those who pay attention to the candidates all have a pretty good idea of who is the democrat and who is the republican.