Arrow-right Camera

ID Government

Coeur d’Alene Sen. Mary Souza backs off bid to move school board votes to November general election

UPDATED: Tue., March 14, 2017, 11:32 p.m.

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked Tuesday to have her school elections bill returned to committee, killing it for the session. (Betsy Z. Russell)
Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked Tuesday to have her school elections bill returned to committee, killing it for the session. (Betsy Z. Russell)

BOISE – Coeur d’Alene Sen. Mary Souza pulled a controversial school election bill on Tuesday, citing “political pressures.”

The proposal sought to move school board elections to the November general election in even-numbered years – the same date that Idahoans go to the polls to vote for president, congressional seats and other high-profile partisan offices. The second-term Republican said the change would increase turnout in school elections.

But the bill drew opposition from the Idaho Association of Counties, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators, who said it would pose problems with the way school elections work, and interfere with the timing of school budgeting and the school year.

The proposal also touched a nerve in Coeur d’Alene, where a bruising election fight in 2013 ousted a short-lived, ultra-conservative majority from the local school board, including three who were appointed, rather than elected.

The bill also would have removed current trustees from office six months early to accomplish the switch in voting dates, from May of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years.

“I’m appreciative she pulled the bill – I think it was the right thing to do,” said current Coeur d’Alene school trustee Christa Hazel, who defeated appointee Brent Regan in the 2013 election. “I also know Sen. Souza is tenacious, so I expect to see it back.”

If so, Hazel said, she hopes Souza will work with her local school district. “The Coeur d’Alene School District has not collaborated or been asked to collaborate in this,” Hazel said. “The board has been in agreement that moving to a November election has some consequences.”

Souza told the Idaho Senate on Tuesday that she’ll continue to look at the issue.

“The hope of this bill is to increase the low voter turnout all over the state in important school elections,” she said.

At an earlier committee hearing, Souza submitted letters in support of the bill from four former Coeur d’Alene trustees: Regan, Ann Seddon, Tom Hamilton and Terry Seymour. They said the change would increase turnout in Idaho school board elections and make boards more reflective of their communities.

Jim Hightower, another former Coeur d’Alene trustee, sent an email to every state legislator from Kootenai County on March 8 threatening to oppose them at the next election if they didn’t support Souza’s bill.

“If we are ever going to break the Democratic party’s hold on our schools indoctrinating rather than educating we need to elect conservatives to these boards! Please do the right thing!” he wrote.

A day later, Hightower sent the same lawmakers an apology.

“I wanted to sincerely apologize for the ridiculous, angry, mean, threatening and intimidating email I sent to you the other day,” he wrote. “I apologize not only for its tone, but for its content. I don’t even believe the things I said about kicking democrats out, etc. … I do support Mary’s bill, but I regret hitting ‘send’ the other day, and I hope you will forgive me.”

Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, said Souza’s bill was unlikely to pass.

“I do have the concern about the school board elections getting drowned out in a general election situation where you have 50 other names on the ballot. … That’d be one of my pressing concerns,” he said.

Amador’s instinct was correct, as Souza pulled the bill later Tuesday morning.

“This bill has absolutely nothing to do with any member of the Coeur d’Alene School Board from the 2013 era,” Souza said in a statement after she asked the Senate to send her bill back to committee. “This is a good bill for good reasons. Political pressures have sidelined it for now, but we will continue to work to improve voter involvement in these important school elections.”

In 2013, a group aligned with one slice in Kootenai County’s GOP spectrum briefly seized control of the Coeur d’Alene School Board as three conservative appointees joined two elected trustees to push the board to the right. Led by Regan, a North Idaho businessman and current board chairman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the group sought to make local school board elections more partisan, at the behest of the Reagan Republicans, a group whose stated goal was to push out elected Democrats and moderates in all local offices, including nonpartisan ones. Ron Lahr, president of the group, told The Spokesman-Review then, “We’re an activist organization almost all about getting Republicans elected at all levels.”

An opposing group calling itself “Balance North Idaho” promoted its own slate of candidates in nonpartisan elections, saying its endorsements were based on qualifications, not political party – and that group won. Regan, who had home-schooled his children and was appointed to the school board in December of 2012, lost in May 2013 to Hazel, a Balance North Idaho-endorsed candidate with two children attending school in the district who described herself as a “reasonable Republican” and campaigned as a “common sense conservative.”

“I’ve moved on, and I think taxpayers expect us to move on and learn how to work collaboratively together on behalf of the taxpayer,” Hazel said Tuesday, “and I think we can do it.”

Souza said the impetus for her bill came from constituents of her co-sponsor, Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, though none of them publicly supported the bill at its committee hearing.

“There is absolutely no effort to make it a partisan election. In fact, increasing voter turnout is a nonpartisan effort,” Souza told the Senate Education Committee. “You will get more people voting, which means more people of all sorts of views will come out.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said her constituents have been contacting her in opposition to the bill.

“I’m concerned that the bill may be trying to address a problem that’s specific to the senator’s area, and in so doing causes disruption, particularly in rural Idaho,” she said.

Keough said the school districts in her rural area struggle to find people to run for unpaid school board positions.

“I have been active in trying to recruit people to run for these positions and step up,” she said. She noted that under Idaho’s election consolidation law, all elections already are limited to four specified dates. “I don’t know what the problem is that we’re trying to fix,” she said.

Click here to comment on this story »