Saturday, October 30, 2010

The South Bend School Board Elections -analysis

Don Wheeler

In the background installment of this series, we explored local issues leading up to where we are now.  In part two, outside influences were explored.  Now I’ll attempt to tie these factors into the current race for school board trustee seats.

Three seats are contested this year:  The Adams High School District (District 1), the Riley High School District (District 2) and the Clay High School District (District 5).

As previously alluded to, this race features a slate of candidates sponsored by local Democratic Party regulars.  Since I hail from the Chicago area originally, I’ll use the term “machine” for convenience.  The machine candidates have been provided significant resources – both in terms of money and organization.  Should we worry about this?  Maybe.

If we think (and are given evidence) that the sponsoring organization has identified candidates who are clearly superior to their opponents and are beholden to no one, then this looks pretty good.  But one needs to consider the merits of both the sponsors and the candidates.  Clearly caveat emptor should apply.

The machine sponsored candidates are Jay Caponigro (Adams), John Stancati (Riley) and Michele Engle (Clay).  Caponigro has been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Leucke has sponsored at least one fund-raiser for Engle, and my wife and I recently received a letter from Roger Parent strongly endorsing Stancati.

It’s interesting that the Chamber only endorsed in one race.  (It was explained that endorsements must be unanimous.)  Even more interesting is the local NEA (our teachers’ union) has been silent.  The South Bend Tribune endorsed the machine slate recently – without offering much reason to agree with them.

There is certainly room for discussion about how much influence a city Mayor should have on a School Board and/or Superintendent.  Though it’s fashionable these days, the actual results are highly mixed.  Further complicating things, because the borders are different, many school corporation constituents aren’t eligible to vote in South Bend mayoral races – thus, the Mayor cannot be held to account by these folks.

Last July, Trustee Roger Parent had a Viewpoint article published in the Tribune entitled School trustee hopes to build on lessons of first 18 months which had to be viewed as a campaign piece.  That seemed curious, since he’s not up for election until 2012.  He indicated his purpose was to the outline the difficulties he’d encountered, identify what he felt he’d accomplished, and …?  Mostly he stated things nobody would disagree with while gently criticizing many oft heard points of view.  Political strategists would refer to this as “building value”.  If you view this July 2 piece, note the use of “I”, “I’ve”, etc., about a dozen and a half times - then do a word search for “we”.  Good luck on the latter.  In retrospect, it appears Parent wants to make this election about him and his allies.

So let’s do that.  As mentioned in an earlier installment, Parent raised and spent an unheard of amount of money for a non-paying Trustee position.  (Indications are machine candidate spending are at similar levels this time around).  Parent often made it clear that his campaign was a typical political race when it came to money – and seemed to exclude other considerations.  For example, when I complained that a local radio station was insisting on a $100 fee for attendance to what was being advertised as a candidates forum (a clear violation of equal time requirements), Parent’s take was that one had to spend money in campaigns.

Also mentioned previously, Parent was one of the few candidates to oppose the strategy of a deliberate search for a new Superintendent.  Robert Zimmerman had been dismissed – which had much of the citizenry in an uproar – but the naming of James Kapsa as Interim Superintendent had mollified many of these folks.  Now having the gift of some time, the School Board voted narrowly to do a conventional, nationwide search for a permanent Superintendent.   Outside funding was offered and under consideration.  At the time, no one knew whether Mr. Kapsa was interested in the permanent post – but I don’t think anyone thought he should not be eligible.

Parent was adamant that Kapsa should be named, which didn’t make any sense.  If Kapsa turned out to be the best choice after completing the search -and wanted the post - then fine.  But to not consider any candidates with actual track records before naming a permanent Superintendent seemed irresponsible at best.  A cynical person might wonder if Mr. Parent calculated Kapsa would feel beholden to him, if Parent engineered the appointment.  That’s not something any of us can know, obviously.

From the Parent Viewpoint:  “With the help of many people I was able to ‘encourage’ trustees to establish a New Tech high school.”  I like the use of quotations on 'encourage'.  It shows honesty.

The Trustees had been considering a New Tech program for years.  Current and prior Board members had visited operating programs, worked on many proposals and locations for a SBCSC program – but securing funding AND a solid concept simultaneously had eluded them.  Still, the general sentiment was to keep trying.

As agreement by a narrow majority of Board members seemed imminent, word has it Mr. Parent lost patience.  It was at that point he revealed his intention to “go it alone” (with backers) on a charter school based on the program.  This was enough, reportedly, to turn one Trustee’s vote from yes to no.  By this account at least, New Tech was delayed by Mr. Parent’s actions – rather than achieved.  Many would argue it was implemented in spite of him.

I want to stress that I believe Mr. Parent has good intentions.  But I have concerns, obviously.

The next installment will address the current races, and the folks in them.

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