By KAREN HOPPER USHER
Capital News Service
LANSING — In Michigan more than 150 local government, school and library seats lack candidates for this November’s election, according to a preliminary document from the Department of State.
State officials are in the early stages of tallying uncontested seats and that number could change.
“It looks like a long list, but it’s actually a small proportion,” said Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
The United States has more elections than any country in the world, Grossmann said. The vacancies do, however, create problems for cities.
There are 8,340 seats up for grabs on the November ballot, according to Gisgie Gendreau, communications director for the Department of State.
Of the more than 150 races without candidates tallied so far, approximately 45 belong to local school boards. That includes Sault Ste. Marie Area Schools, Les Cheneaux Community Schools in Cedarville, Ishpeming Public School District and Mesick Consolidated Schools.
Sturgis Public Schools and Wolverine Community Schools are among the districts also on the list. But superintendents in those districts say the list doesn’t tell the whole story.
In Sturgis, a board member failed to file on time and will run as a write-in candidate. And software update problems could account for board seats at Wolverine Community schools being wrongly listed as uncontested, according to the Cheboygan County clerk’s office.
Unfilled seats represent real problems and wasted time for school boards, says John Tramontana, director of communications at the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB). When candidates don’t put themselves on the ballot, school boards have to find somebody to fill the seat.
That’s why this spring and summer, the school board association launched a “Get on Board” campaign to attract more candidates. After school boards changed terms from four years to six years, about 10 percent of all available seats didn’t have anybody running, Tramontana said.
“That’s a long time,” said Timothy Hall, the superintendent at Sault Ste. Marie Area Schools in Chippewa County, where one seat is uncontested.
This summer, the “Get on Board” campaign reduced the number of uncontestedseats statewide, Tramontana said. The campaign explained the responsibilities of board members, how to file for a seat and election and campaign finance laws.
Early numbers suggest the campaign was effective, he said. But the MASB’s goal of “zero” seats without candidates has not been met.
Hall blames the six-year term and funding problems for the lack of interest in local school board seats.
Declining enrollment and the cutting of programs puts pressure on the boards, he said.
“How much fun is that?”
Carrie Meyer, superintendent at the Ishpeming Public School District, agreed.
Deficits, hard cuts and contract negotiations were stressful for board members, she said.
In communities where nobody met the filing deadline, there is still hope that someone will mount a write-in campaign. The partial list from the Department of State shows some communities where write-in candidates have already been identified. More will likely be identified.
The school board association is keeping the “Get on Board” campaign active through the election, Tramontana said. Online video and documents materials will remain available to help write-in candidates.
Meyer plans to encourage write-in candidates to fill the three open school board seats at the Ishpeming dstrict. If nobody commits to a write-in campaign, the district will run ads asking for applications, and the board will appoint new members.
The problem of lack of interest in local office goes beyond school boards.
When somebody suggested to Lapeer city Commissioner Joshua Atwood that he run for a commission seat, he says he had to Google what city commissioners do.
That’s not unusual, said Kirsten Wyatt, co-founder of Engaging Local Government Leaders, a Portland, Ore.-based organization with a mission to make local government interesting, accessible and reliable.
Ignorance of local opportunities and distaste for polarized debate keep service-minded people from seeking local public office, she said.
MSU’s Grossmann says aversion to the political process in general and particularly party politics is a worrying trend nationwide, particularly among young people.
Both Wyatt and Atwood say youth engagement may be the key to building interest in public office.
Atwood, 33, who ran his campaign solely online and was elected last November, holds a monthly “Coffee with the Comish” meeting. During a recent teen session, he said kids told him they didn’t feel welcome.
The mayors are aging, Atwood said. “Who will take their seat if young people feel unwanted?”
By KAREN HOPPER USHER