August 18, 2008 in Opinion

Our view: School board resignation shortchanges voters

 

Once again, a member of the Spokane School Board has stepped down midterm, creating a vacancy that the remaining members must fill by appointment.

They’re up to the task, having had plenty of practice. When 13-year board veteran Christie Querna’s successor is chosen, probably by Oct. 8, four of the five board members will be people who initially were selected not by the public but by their board colleagues-to-be. When the anointed do eventually appear on a ballot it’s only after establishing months of incumbency and compiling the political advantages that follow.

To her credit, Querna won her way onto the board 13 years ago, capturing an open seat by defeating a field that included present board member Rocco Treppiedi. A year later, when John Warn resigned in mid-term, the other board members picked Treppiedi, whom the voters had just passed over.

Of the other three members now on the board, only Robert Douthitt, who won an open seat last fall, joined the board without benefit of appointment. Garret Daggett and Susan Chapin were appointed in 2005 and 2007 respectively to complete unexpired terms. In Daggett’s case he ran without opposition the following fall, so he has yet to face a voter choice.

While none of this suggests that any of the board members is wanting in some way, it does raise questions about whether Spokane schools are in the hands of policymakers who reflect the public’s values and preferences – or the board’s.

A year ago Querna was considering calling it quits after her term expired, but there was a superintendent search going on and she ran for one more term rather than leave in the middle of that process. The respected board member won easily, saw the superintendent selection through and announced her retirement nine months after being re-elected.

“It’s a good idea to repot the board a little bit,” she says of her timing.

Unfortunately, that repotting stands little chance of achieving the benefits of philosophical cross-pollenization that’s possible when candidates emerge naturally and take their cases directly to the public. The board has invited interested community members to submit their resumes, but it’s only logical to expect that when they screen the applications they will evaluate them according to their own values, beliefs and priorities. They will pick someone like themselves.

That process would be unassailable if there is no value in bringing conflicting perspectives into open competition over important decisions such as closing schools, cutting librarians or adopting a statewide math curriculum. It’s reasonable to perceive a connection between the preponderance of board-chosen board members and the startling rarity of non-unanimous votes they take.

Just as students in Spokane’s schools are encouraged to demonstrate critical thinking, board affairs would benefit from honest, respectful give-and-take that the public seldom sees.

If Querna’s successor wants to keep the job, he or she will have to run for it a year from now, but with a decided head start over any challengers who offer different approaches and ideas.

One attitude voters would be wise to inquire about at that time is whether the candidates are committed to serving out their terms.

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