High Anchorage election turnout masks structural problems

How many befuddled Anchorage voters in the last election opened their voting packet and stared blankly at the enclosed ballot, wondering: Who in the heck are these people running for School Board? Are they conservatives? Liberals? Have I ever heard of them before?

While sources of information readily were available about the hopefuls before the city's first mail-in balloting, not everybody, apparently, paid much attention to school board candidates. The election showed that.

Candidates in the mayoral race, for instance, drew 76,906 votes, and even the Girdwood parking enforcement proposition drew 74,706 votes. The three at-large school board races had an average of about 62,000 votes each. One of the races, won by Elisa Snelling, drew nearly 20,000 fewer votes than the mayoral contest.

That is not good news. Some voters, my unscientific sampling found, blew off the school board races because they had never heard of the candidates or had no inkling of what their politics might be. That, of course, is by design.

[Cost of Anchorage's first vote-by-mail election exceeds $1 million]

In the heady days of the Anchorage municipality's creation in the mid-1970s, those who hammered out its charter believed they had hit upon a way to ensure better government. They would ignore human nature and protect the people's wishes and needs from evil politics. The city would come first. The charter they crafted commanded "all municipal elections shall be nonpartisan" and they set up a school board elected "at-large."

Those mandates have led to a years-long charade. The dictum on nonpartisanship denies the average voter basic information about a candidate, his or her politics. The at-large school board elections only work to distance school board candidates and members from voters.

While Anchorage's 11-member Assembly is divided into six districts — five two-member districts and a single-member downtown district — charter writers envisioned something quite different for the school board.

Its members represent, for all intents and purposes, one huge district. Each board member is accountable to all of the city's nearly 220,000 registered voters — and, because of that, to nobody in particular. Because the board members are elected at-large, it is even entirely possible all of them could come from a single section of the city, though that is not the case today.

Proponents will tell you the status quo keeps politics out of school business and policies; that each school board member represents all schools, not just a few; that partisanship is self-defeating in school matters; and, that there are no alliances or political clashes over limited resources. It is ridiculous, of course. Politics play a role in everything, and have since there were three of us. It is a hard-wired part of the human condition, whether we recognize it or not. The school board is not immune.

The Assembly was not set up the same way — and for good reason. The districts were established — despite the bow to nonpartisanship — to almost ensure politics. Anchorage residents are represented by someone accountable in a much smaller political subdivision, somebody residents know, somebody with an interest in their district and lives there, and somebody who is more easily accessible. The school board's at-large structure offers none of that.

It is difficult to understand how a board member overseeing the entirety of Anchorage's massive educational endeavor, with its $559 million general fund budget, 48,000 students, 6,000 employees and more than 90 schools, can adequately represent or deal with all the competing interests involved. It would seem easier and more efficient for them to live in and focus on representing an identifiable set of schools in a specific geographical area, such as an Assembly district. The way it is now, school board representation is diluted by sheer mass in a Pollyanna-ish construct aimed at making it appear the panel is insulated from politics.

Though it would require a change in charter language, Anchorage should consider forgetting about nonpartisanship when it comes to its elections. The masquerade is laughable — and has been for years. Besides, many voters believe political leanings are perhaps the most important thing to know about a candidate.

If the city wants voters to begin taking school board elections more seriously, it should consider dumping at-large voting and develop districts that will focus representation on smaller areas, the way it truly should be. That would allow a connection between a board member, or a candidate, and the people and schools of that district. The closer voters are to their elected representatives, the more direct the conversation, the better representation they will have. It the bedrock of the nowhere-to-run, nowhere-to-hide school of politics.

With such changes, perhaps the next time around, voters will not be so flummoxed in selecting and voting for school board candidates.

They might even come to know who they are.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Paul Jenkins

Paul Jenkins is a former Associated Press reporter, managing editor of the Anchorage Times, an editor of the Voice of the Times and former editor of the Anchorage Daily Planet.