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Rural districts struggle to find school board candidates

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Megan Morrison of Atwater has three kids and thinks a mom's perspective would fit well on her local school board in west-central Minnesota, so she's running. But she has no yard signs or that much of a campaign plan. 

"I wrote one write-up about myself for one local paper that asked for it, and I went to one meet-the-candidate [event] in a small town next to us, so that's the amount of campaigning I've done," Morrison said.

Still, that should be plenty to guarantee a win Tuesday. Morrison's is the only name that will appear on ballots in the race for the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, or A.C.G.C., school board.

Voters across Minnesota will select school board members on Tuesday, but in some districts, there aren't enough candidates on the ballot to fill all the seats up for election.

"But it does seem like in the last four years we're seeing more of this, that it's harder to get school board candidates."

The lack of candidates made Atwater Cosmos Grove Superintendent Sherri Broderius nervous. School board members are her bosses, after all, but Broderius has an idea on why there's a shortage.

"If you follow what's going on in the state right now, with the several billion dollar state deficit, I think people are seeing this could be a huge job," Broderius said. "Being a board member isn't something you take lightly."

Across Minnesota, 34 of the state's 339 school districts have races that don't have enough candidates to fill all the open seats. All 34 are rural and serve small towns. They include East Grand Forks, Hermantown, Hayfield and Montevideo. Three districts -- Lac Qui Parle Valley, Red Rock Central and Little Falls -- have seats open for which there will be no names on the ballot.

Greg Abbott, with the Minnesota School Boards Association, said there have always been examples of individual elections with too few candidates.

"But it does seem like in the last four years we're seeing more of this, that it's harder to get school board candidates," Abbott said.

Abbott also said more and more first-time board members are resigning before the end of their first terms because they're frustrated that the bad economy is forcing them to spend so much time cutting budgets.

"It's a lot tougher to do your job when your hands are tied and there's no money to do much," Abbott said.

Abbott said the bad economy prevents some potential candidates from finding the time necessary for the job. That's one reason Gwen Chase is not seeking a fourth term on the A.C.G.C. school board. She started a new job last year that's farther away, and it's harder to get to every meeting and function.

Chase said she's not surprised to hear that other districts have a candidate shortages, given how tight budgets have been.

"I believe that people just get tired of fighting for every penny and get tired of always being blamed in the community that 'you must have wasted money.'" Chase said.

There are remedies when there are too few candidates. A write-in candidate could win, potentially with just one vote. But if there are no write-ins, or if a write-in winner declines to take the office, school boards can fill open seats by appointment.

Pam Costain left the Minneapolis School Board this year, saying she literally couldn't afford to keep doing full-time work for part-time pay. Salaries vary by district but are usually low; in A.C.G.C, it's about $750 a year.

Costain said it's time for a larger debate about whether the current structure of over 300 local school boards is adequate for managing such a critical function.

"I'm not going to be simplistic enough to suggest that I've got an answer," Costain said. "This is an essential community institution and, really, the health and vitality of cities and townships relies on healthy schools, and so we can't ignore this question any longer."

For now, the immediate issue in A.C.G.C. appears solved. At least three people have been recruited to run as write-ins for those remaining seats. But that might only be a temporary fix -- this isn't the first time the district has had a candidate shortage.

DISTRICTS NEEDING CANDIDATES

Districts with 0 candidates running for 1 seat: Lac Qui Parle Valley, Little Falls, Red Rock Central

Districts with 1 candidate running for 3 seats: Bird Island-Olivia-Lake Lillian, Browns Valley, Hayfield, Hermantown, Yellow Medicine East

Districts with 1 candidate running for 4 seats: A.C.G.C, Kenyon-Wanamingo

Districts with 2 candidates running for 3 seats: Ada-Borup, Benson, Chatfield, Chisago Lakes, Chokio-Alberta, East Grand Forks, Evansville, Hawley, Hill City, Kittson Central, LaCrescent-Hokah, Lake Benton, Minnewaska, Montevideo, New Ulm, Pipestone, Renville County West, Round Lake, Spring Grove, Wrenshall

Districts with 2 candidates running for 4 seats: Caledonia, Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley, Wabasso

Districts with 3 candidates running for 4 seats: Waseca