Last year, when rowdy crowds regularly protested school board meetings in the Phoenix metro, it looked like elections for those seats would be filled with drama. Or at least a ton of challengers.
Many feared then that partisan causes would flood nonpartisan school board races and that national rhetoric about how race and history are taught would overshadow local issues.
Now it’s eerily quiet.
There are 58 public school districts in Maricopa County, which educate about two-thirds of the state’s students. Yet few of the 127 board seats up for election — critical leadership positions that oversee the superintendent, set district policy and its budget — are hotly contested in November.
Anger towards school boards has largely died down
It’s hard to say. Most education watchers remain puzzled as to why, in many cases, school board races have become even more low-key this year than they were before COVID-19 and the critical theory of the race turned council meetings into powder kegs.
One explanation could be that the mask mandates and school closures that once divided parents and spurred recall attempts are no longer a thing.
From 2021:School board members under fire from masks and critical race theory
And while debates over critical race theory and sex education still rage in school districts across the country, there’s less uproar now over what’s being taught locally.
As public anger subsided, it is believed, the number of rage-motivated contestants also declined.
It’s not that fewer candidates show up
Again, this assumes there was a mass of candidates who were serious about running in 2021 but didn’t in 2022 – which doesn’t appear to be the case.
The number of candidates who filed expressions of interest but are not on the ballot was not significantly different for this election than in 2020.
Fewer district elections were also canceled this year due to a lack of competition compared to 2018, arguably a more comparable year as a similar number of seats were up for grabs.
But it has never been difficult in recent years to identify the county’s most important breeds. Everyone agreed on them. Not so now.
Even keen observers have had trouble identifying a hotly contested race in Maricopa County this year.
But it’s hard to find even 1 hot race
There are many districts with multiple candidates vying for seats, including districts like Litchfield Elementary, Scottsdale and Peoria that have seen some of the greatest turbulence during the pandemic. But even these runs are relatively quiet.
Some might say that’s a good thing. Even though a large chunk of incumbents aren’t showing up again — a trend that began before the pandemic — the tenor is more “stable as we go” than “let’s do a 180.”
But there’s a downside when so many races stay in stealth mode.
Few candidate forums are scheduled this year, reflecting a national trend away from debates, and candidates up and down the ballot are increasingly reluctant to answer questionnaires on key issues.
With a very divided electorate, the theory is that candidates don’t want to say too much because they think it might alienate voters. But it also makes it difficult for voters to decipher how school board candidates might approach burning issues.
And there will always be burning issues.
Low on the ballot, but not low on priority
Both political parties are jostling for school board nominees this year, albeit somewhat quietly, and a few interest groups are raising money for those they have endorsed, although nothing like the big bucks that flock to school board races in states like Florida and Texas.
It is unclear how (or if) these efforts might impact local election results. But it’s possible that a fair number of seats could be won simply based on who has the most campaign signs posted around town.
It would be a shame.
Because there are big issues – like mitigating the impact of the pandemic on students and addressing teacher shortages – that will require a strong and sustained response from school boards.
Now is not the time to choose candidates willy-nilly. Especially with all the turnover on the board, we need leaders with concrete plans to take our schools – and our children, the future of our state – to the next level.
This is an opinion of the editorial board of The Arizona Republic.