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Chris Rickert: School board hubbub just another mockery of democracy

Chris Rickert: School board hubbub just another mockery of democracy

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It's ironic that democracy activist Sarah Manski would run for the Madison School Board knowing that if she won, she might have to resign before her term was up.

As it happened, she dropped out of the race on Thursday, just two days after winning her primary — turning what had been a solidly democratic contest among three candidates into a cakewalk for one. T.J. Mertz is now the only person on the ballot who could actually take the seat.

Ironic, too, that fellow progressive and current board vice president Marj Passman would allegedly — i.e., Passman denies it — tell Manski not to worry about having to resign because if she did, the board would, as Manski claims Passman told her, "appoint somebody good."

But I can't be that shocked about a pair of progressives in democratically engaged Madison engaging in some democratically questionable behavior when the process for electing school board members in Madison is itself a minor mockery of democracy.

Here's why:

There are seven seats on the Madison School Board, all with three-year terms that rotate: Two seats are on the ballot one year, two on the ballot a year later, and three a year after that. Then the whole process starts over again.

Although candidates must choose which seat they want to run for, the seats do not correspond to distinct geographic areas of the district. You can run for whatever seat you want, no matter where you live.

So each school board seat is an at-large seat. But that doesn't necessarily mean we get our choice of school board candidates.

When voters go to the polls, they can select only one candidate for each seat. This April, the choices are Dean Loumos or Wayne Strong for Seat 3, James Howard or Greg Packnett for Seat 4 and Mertz or Manski for Seat 5. (Manski's name will still appear on the ballot; if she wins, the board gets to appoint somebody — presumably "somebody good.")

The flaws in this system are obvious. It creates the risk that the second- or third-highest vote-getter overall won't win a seat — say, if Strong has fewer votes than Loumos, but more than any other candidate.

Also, if the two candidates you like the most are running against each other, you're forced to vote for your first- and third-place choices.

Finally, it's a big district geographically, but an at-large system leaves open the possibility that everyone on the board could, theoretically, live on the same block.

In some other districts around the state, the top vote-getters are assured of winning however many seats are open for election. Other boards are structured to ensure representation from throughout the district.

On Monday, I spoke with state and local elections officials, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Madison School District, and I'm still not sure if such democratic reforms are possible in Madison, absent a change in state law.

I do know that the problems with Madison's school board elections seem ripe for a little Madison-style, pro-democracy activism.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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