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Madison School Board candidates Flores and Strong

Wayne Strong, left, and Michael Flores were only two of the three people on the ballot for two seats on the Madison School Board last year. They were also the only two at risk of losing.

Now that a Madison School Board member has proposed nearly doubling members’ annual stipends, there is sure to be talk about how the board is there to serve the community — not make money — and questions about why members would give themselves a raise in a year when the budget is so tight.

Such concerns are misguided. The budget is tight every year, and board members put in tons of work and tons of hours listening to teachers, parents and other community members. I wouldn’t subject my worst enemy to having to sit through some of their meetings.

But if, as board member Dean Loumos contends, the point in making the job more lucrative is to “eliminate all objective issues” preventing someone from running, there are other, lower-cost options.

The board could start by lobbying state lawmakers to allow all candidates to compete for all seats up for election.

Now, candidates must declare which of seven numbered seats — none of which are tied to specific geographic districts — they are running for. This creates situations like the one that happened last year when there were two seats and three candidates on the ballot, but one of the candidates was unopposed.

No one challenged incumbent Ed Hughes for one of the seats, while Wayne Strong and Michael Flores opted to fight it out for the other.

Voters who liked both Strong and Flores couldn’t vote for both. They were also denied the chance to vote for two minority candidates — Flores is Latino and Strong is black — in a district that has long struggled to attract employees, and educate children, of color.

The numbered-seat system would make sense if each seat represented voters in a specific geographic area. But under the current system, all district voters get to vote for all seats.

Geographically assigned seats could also encourage more people to run by lessening the influence of the teachers union.

Because members are elected during low-turnout spring elections, special interest groups have a proportionally bigger voice in who wins. In Madison, it’s nearly impossible to win without union support unless you have tons of money.

But under a system of geographically assigned seats, there might be enough grassroots support in, say, a south Madison School Board district to mitigate the union’s influence.

Madison voters have the state Legislature to thank for the school district’s current, inane way of electing board members.

Until 1985, there were no numbered seats, and the top vote-getters for however many seats were up for election were declared the winners.

But in the late 1970s, there was a movement to force board members into one-on-one contests as a way to target specific members amid a broader debate on the board over plans to close some central-city schools.

A binding referendum to move to the current election system failed in 1978, but a bill to do the same was passed a few years later.

Today, School Board president James Howard tells me: “The board’s election process is not on our radar at this time.”

And I suppose it is easier just to hike pay.

Board members definitely work for their money — if not for a more democratic School Board.

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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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