Scarp: How to win a seat on the school board - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

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Scarp: How to win a seat on the school board

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Posted: Friday, May 23, 2008 12:43 am

Being on the school board is thankless and pays nothing and I’d never run for it, not even if I was promised that world peace would break out if I did (although, thinking about it, that would be pretty selfish of me).

Read Mark Scarp's blog, 'Scarpsdale'

Three seats are open this fall on the Scottsdale school board. Looks as though there’ll be some incumbents and some newcomers on the Nov. 4 ballot.

So, for any of them, or any of you, who dream of being unilaterally responsible for world peace — or just wants to be a school board member, even though it’s thankless and pays nothing — here’s how to do it:

Don’t try to appeal to parents.

I’ll wait a moment if you’d like to write that down in your notes.

Parents, bless their hearts and yes, I have two, are the most parochial of human beings. For most, if it isn’t good for their kids, chances are that they’re not interested.

And if you put dozens of them into a school board meeting room you’ll have dozens of intractable positions on issues that cry out for a much more global solution.

Scottsdale’s no different than anywhere else. Our school board meetings have been packing parents in recently, all with variations on the theme of “Don’t Close My Kid’s School.”

The Scottsdale Unified School District’s financial challenges are real, and revenue streams have slowed. The district faces up to a $10.9 million shortfall next year.

Call me a childless bachelor (which I am), but that doesn’t change the facts: Serious actions need to be taken to pay the district’s bills and still provide the best education possible for all kids, not just your kid.

Serious actions, as in less income means less outgo, right?

Well, tell that to a Scottsdale mom or a dad in a school board meeting audience. These are people who might well have uttered those words in a business meeting that very morning, but that won’t matter.

A school board candidate’s playing to parents is a political loser, because built into such a strategy is the automatic disappointment of large numbers of them. You try to please some and just as many, probably more, won’t like it and won’t like you, and many will swear they’ll vote you out of office. (That is, if somewhere on November’s expected lengthy ballot, they can even find your name.)

But this is not a column about how to lose a race for school board. It’s about how to win one.

So, who’s your constituency?

Taxpayers.

Some taxpayers actually care about education, and they should be among those you approach first to get their votes. And, no, I’m not excluding parents from this group, as there are many reasonable parents out there who realize that they and everyone else are also taxpayers.

Yes, I’m talking about people who all care about their tax money and where it goes — and who are seldom part of crisis discussions such as the ones the Scottsdale school board is currently engaging in.

Now, some taxpayers are like parents, and you can’t please them all, either. But taxpayers can think collectively in ways that parents don’t, that is, they may not mind paying school taxes if they know what it’s really all for.

“Education spending seems to go to too many wrong places,” you could say in your rhetorical, yet focused, stump speech. “Elect me, Joe (or Jill) Watchdog, and I’ll squeeze the most value of every school-tax dime to make sure children get the education they need and taxpayers like us get the value they deserve.”

Despite what you have probably heard as often as I have, merely spending money isn’t a guarantee of a quality education. The country is full of examples of some of the highest-spending states and localities whose graduation rates and test scores are mediocre.

Good fiscal policy, however, can be a great lead-up to good educational policy. Be better stewards of the tax dollars you’re getting, spend them more wisely — and show that you are — and you’ll have a public school system that competes far better with private and charter schools for enrolling students.

On occasion, showing that wisdom means making tough fiscal, and thus educational, choices. But if those choices can be justified as best for all, not merely for some, than an incumbent board member who makes them, or a challenger willing to make them, can get elected — by taxpayers.

Taxpayers who actually care about education.

It’s a group that welcomes parents to its ranks.

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