Last Monday the State Board of Education voted unanimously to amend the conditions of accreditation for the Western Heights school district, effectively taking over the district, substituting state control for local control. For the next year, every action taken by the district will be subject to review by the State Board. In addition, the district will be led by a State Board appointed interim superintendent. This seems to resolve a months-long struggle for power between the district board and the State Board, with the district board choosing to ignore repeated recommendations, suggestions, and mandates of the State Board.

Accusations of serious impropriety  were leveled against the Western Heights school district during the March 25th State Board of Education meeting, including financial discrepancies, failed audits, abysmal student outcomes, and vindictive and retaliatory actions from district superintendent Mannix Barnes. The Board subsequently required Western Heights to appear at the April 9th board meeting, which they refused to do. At the April 9th State Board meeting, the Board voted to accredit the district with probation. In essence, the district was given 90 days from notification to resolve the issues identified by the State Board or risk losing their accreditation status.

Rather than take action to rectify the issues detailed by the State Board (some of which were tied directly to the poor leadership and actions of superintendent Barnes) the district board filed a lawsuit against the State Board, the State Department of Education, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Western Heights school board members also chose to extend superintendent Barnes’ contract for 3 years and grant him a $25,000 performance bonus.

At its June 24th meeting, the State Board voted to suspend superintendent Barnes’ educator certification, making it illegal for him to continue as the superintendent of the Western Heights school district. The State Board also requested a special audit and reminded the district that if no corrective action were taken, they faced loss of accreditation or annexation. It was at its July 12th meeting that the State Board took over the district.

One might wonder; is it fundamentally anti-conservative to support the actions of the State Board in this situation? They seem to subvert the entire Jeffersonian concept of local control, the idea that “the government closest to the people serves the people best.” After all, the district board members had to be elected to their positions. Shouldn’t we defer to the school board – and by extension the voters of the district – in matters regarding the operation of the school district?

District board members are elected local officials; however, 5 out of the last 8 seats for Western Heights school board have been filled in uncontested elections. To make matters worse, voter turnout in actual elections is woefully low. In the 2019 election for Seat 4 on the Western Heights school board, a total of 67 votes were cast – 67. This in a district that served approximately 3,400 students at the beginning of 2020. I’ll wager there are a few more than 67 parents in the Western Heights school district, and well more than 67 eligible voters.

What could be the cause of such low turnout? Do parents and eligible voters simply not care enough to go vote? Quite the contrary. Obscure and under-publicized election dates in school board elections result in low voter turnout, not only in the Western Heights school district, but in school board elections across the entire state. To make matters worse, voters have no way (aside from the end of term) to remove members of a school board once they get a seat. This is most assuredly not local control. Parents and voters of Western Heights had no choice other than to reach out to the State Board for help.

What then can be done to prevent situations like this from arising in the future? First, the legislature should prioritize a measure to move school board elections to November. As 1889 has previously argued, this would go a long way toward rectifying the abysmal turnout in school board elections, giving voters an actual say in who oversees their schools. Second, the legislature should empower voters to recall school board members if they deem it necessary. While not perfect solutions, these two actions would restore a great deal of control to the voters within a school district, provide sorely needed accountability to school boards and superintendents, and hopefully prevent future situations like this from happening in Western Heights or any other school district in the state.

Tyler Williamson is a Research Associate at 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.