Just two prospective candidates turned up for an information session held at the Ann Arbor Public Schools Balas administration building on June 30. Both of them are current board members – Christine Stead and Andy Thomas – who were recently appointed to the board to fill vacant positions due to resignations.
The replacement appointments received by Thomas and Stead, along with a third board member Simone Lightfoot, last only through December, 2010.
So for just over an hour, Stead and Thomas asked questions and heard campaigning advice from AAPS director of communications Liz Margolis, AAPS election liaison Teri Williams, plus fellow board members – secretary Glenn Nelson and vice president Irene Patalan.
This will be the first time the AAPS district elects its board of education trustees as part of November’s general election. The board voted this year to move their elections from May to November as a cost-saving measure. Five of the seven seats on the AAPS board will be open – two four-year terms, one two-year term, and two one-year terms.
Nelson and Patalan are the only two members of the seven-member body who do not need to be elected in November to continue to serve on the board.
History of Board Elections
After noting that everyone in the room already knew each other, Margolis skipped introductions, and opened the meeting by encouraging Stead and Thomas to make use of Williams as a resource. Williams, she said, had full responsibility for coordinating board of education elections before the countywide election consolidation took place about five years ago.
Though the elections are now handled by the county, Williams noted she still coordinates AAPS building use during elections, and can offer candidates assistance in a variety of ways. But as she pointed to the county contact information at the bottom of the meeting handout, she encouraged candidates to run very specific questions by the county clerk’s staff, who oversee the elections.
Five Seats Open
Williams explained that there will be five seats open on the board of education beginning Jan. 1, 2011, and reminded Thomas and Stead, “If you decide to run, by sure to specify which seat, because there are so many.” Patalan noted that there has never been an election with such a convoluted collection of terms: “In my lifetime, it’s been three turnovers at maximum, and now we have five.”
Board trustees are usually elected for four years, and two of the seats opening in January will be regular four-year terms, expiring on Dec. 31, 2014. Trustee Susan Baskett and board president Deb Mexicotte were elected to their current seats in 2006, and their four-year terms will expire on Dec. 31, 2010.
The other remaining seats will be available not because of expiring terms, but to replace the three board members who have resigned this past school year. Trustee Simone Lightfoot, Stead, and Thomas each hold a seat that was vacated mid-term (by Helen Gates-Bryant, Adam Hollier, and Randy Friedman, respectively). In the case of a resignation, the board has the authority to select a replacement trustee, but only until the next regular election, when the public can elect a new trustee at-large to fill the vacancy. Thus, of those three seats, one will have a two-year term, expiring Dec. 31, 2012, and two will have a one-year term, expiring Dec. 31, 2011.
Thomas asked whether he and Stead would essentially be running against each other, if they both chose to file to run for one of the two four-year seats. Nelson confirmed that was correct, “Yes, it’s the top two who would win.” Thomas gave the following example: if a third person, John Doe, also ran for a four-year seat, and a voter wanted to support John Doe, then the voter would have to choose between Thomas and Stead. So, Thomas concluded, it might be logical for Thomas and Stead, if they really wanted to support each other, to run for different seats. Nelson said that was for the two of them to figure out.
Patalan added, “It boggles my mind to think of this. What I think about is, what if five people ran, and they all did for four-year terms, that would be tragic.” She noted that excellent candidates could be lost, while lesser candidates won spots by filing for shorter terms.
Patalan suggested, “It would be interesting to talk to the county about that.”
Filing and Petitions
Margolis explained that to run for office, candidates could either file a nominating petition with the county clerk, or pay a fee. The fee is $100. Patalan asked how many signatures are required on the petition, and Williams said about 40. (According to the Washtenaw County Clerk Elections website, the formula for determining the number of signatures needed on a nominating petition is based in part on population; it recommends the candidates check the 2000 U.S. Census numbers.)
Nelson suggested getting more signatures than needed, unless the people signing “are just 105% credible,” and warned that one in 20 signatures might not be counted. Williams suggested that one reason this happens is because the petitions are specific to a municipality. For example, she said, “People who live in Scio Township can’t sign for the city of Ann Arbor.” Margolis added that the AAPS district draws from eight municipalities.
Patalan suggested maintaining multiple petitions so that people could sign accordingly. She mentioned that when she was running for office, she had petitions for Scio Township, the city of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Township, and Pittsfield Township. Williams suggested, “If you turn in petitions early, you can check to see if there are enough, and get more if you need to.” Nelson added that getting nominating signatures is a good way to get known, and that candidates should not see it as “onerous.”
Williams confirmed for Thomas that candidates have to identify the seat they are running for before they begin to circulate petitions. Patalan asked whether someone could go around with two petitions – one for a one-year seat and another for a two-year seat. “I wonder if the county would look at this election as so unusual,” she said. “I could see somebody actually being undecided [about which term to run for].” Williams answered that she wasn’t sure it was legal to circulate petitions for multiple seats at once.
Those at the session engaged in a casual conversation about four aspects of campaigning: financing, write-in candidacies, communication, and the value of the experience.
Thomas asked for general advice about “the nuts and bolts” of campaign financing and accounting. Williams referred him to the county, saying “I’ve never taken part of the campaign finance part.” [Information on campaign finance is on the county elections website.]
Nelson and Patalan both praised their campaign treasurers. Nelson said it was good to be able to be completely relaxed about the money. He encouraged the candidates to find a treasurer in whom they had complete confidence. If a candidate fails to find a treasurer, he said, “you have to pick up the volume of the election law, and learn it yourself … Someone who isn’t careful can make all sorts of mistakes that can be inconvenient and expensive.”
Patalan noted that there have been candidates who haven’t had a treasurer, but that she and Nelson were happy to have the help of someone who has experience. Nelson added, “The regulations are very precise, and logical enough, but they are demanding.” There are laws regarding late contributions so that all donations are appropriately accounted for, he said.
Thomas asked if a candidate needs to account for his or her own personal funds in the same way, if they are used for the campaign. Nelson said yes, and noted that in-kind contributions were also subject to accounting. Thomas asked for clarification about using his car for campaign purposes, and Williams again suggested that he ask the county election personnel. Williams also noted, “It’s much simpler if you don’t have a large campaign.”
Patalan noted that she and Nelson used campaign money for people to host teas, and thank them afterward. “We did lawn signs, mailing, printing out letters – all those things add up,” she said.
Campaigning: Write-In Candidacy
In reference to the unusual number of available seats for varying terms in this election, Williams suggested that filing as a write-in candidate could allow candidates to see who was running for the other seats before committing to one over the others. Stead asked if there was a fee to do so, and Williams said no.
Both Stead and Thomas asked about the timeline for running a successful campaign as a write-in candidate – the Oct. 22 filing deadline for write-ins is just weeks before the election. Williams pointed out that the filing deadline for write-in candidates used to be later, just one week before the election. She argued, “If you have a campaign well thought-out, it could work.” Margolis added, “It doesn’t take a lot, unfortunately.” Patalan continued, “There was once a tie vote. They had to pull straws.”
Nelson said that since it was a major election year, he guessed that 60,000 people would be coming to the polls. He conceded, however, that he didn’t know how many would get to the bottom of the ballot, but that one could check with Washtenaw Community College to find out. [The community college board candidates are also located near the end of the ballot.]
Nelson also pointed out that not everyone will vote for the full number of seats allowed. For example, he said, in the previous John Doe example, with Doe, Stead and Thomas contesting two four-year seats, a voter might vote for John Doe, and then choose neither Thomas nor Stead for the other four-year term.
Margolis, Williams, Nelson, and Patalan answered questions and offered Stead and Thomas advice about communication during campaigning. Their discussion included four main themes: the ethical use of mailing lists or directories, campaigning at school events, posting on AnnArbor.com, and campaigning at community events.
Campaign Communication: Use of Lists and Directories
Thomas asked what the restrictions were for using AAPS contact lists, student directories, or other group lists as campaign tools. Margolis said that only the student directories are public, and that using them would therefore be legitimate. She also pointed out, however, that some schools don’t create student directories any longer because they have been used by military recruiters. Ethics, Margolis said, should prevent candidates from using PTO or other mailing lists to which they might have access.
Nelson encouraged Thomas to review the law on appropriate list use. He noted that during the enhancement millage campaign in the fall of 2009, when the district organized a phone bank, callers “took phone directories, tore six pages out of them, and sat there with the phone … We had a computerized list,” he said, “but we never used it. And, certainly a school board election is even more ethically and legally beyond that threshold.”
Williams added that several years ago, there was an incumbent running who used PTO mailing labels during his or her campaign. This person, she said, “got a lot of bad PR, and did lose.” She summarized, “District resources cannot be used.”
Margolis added that a PTO, for example, is a separate organization and should have its own rules that using the list might violate as well. She suggested that it was important to ask for permission to use specific lists. Stead added that most organizations have a privacy statement up front.
Campaign Communication: School Events
Margolis noted that, in the past, candidates have done most of their campaigning at the schools’ spring ice cream socials, but that with the elections being moved to November, that would change. She pointed out that “the only things going on then are capsule and curriculum nights,” which “aren’t set up for those types of interactions.” Nelson pointed out that during the enhancement millage campaign, supporters just stood outside during those events.
Margolis pointed out that not only do candidates need to be outside the building, they need to be 100 feet from the door to the building. She offered to provide the candidates with the dates for capsule and curriculum nights, as they are already set, and suggested to them that “it is one of your opportunities to get in front of more people.”
Patalan suggested that capsule and curriculum nights might not be a workable venue for campaigning, saying that parents are there to learn about what their kids are doing, and that they’re in and out of classrooms. Nelson said, in his experience during the millage campaign, “Say capsule night is at 6:30, from 6:00 to 6:22, people take your brochure and say hi. Then, from 6:22 to 6:40, they just run by…If you’re too assertive, you’ll probably lose votes. Then, when it lets out at 8:00, there are some who just want to get home, but some who have a minute or two.”
Margolis added that other school events might come up before November where a similar approach would be appropriate, such as school plays or other performances. Nelson agreed that high school concerts are a good venue for campaigning. “I always thought it was a good idea to hand things out when people were going to be sitting for 5-10 minutes. Otherwise, you can see all your fliers in garbage containers.” Thomas joked, “And that’s not good PR either!”
Patalan and Nelson debated the pros and cons of campaigning at high school football games, and Margolis concluded that either way, the point is that “you want people to make a connection with a name and a face – that’s important when they get to the ballot.”
Campaign Communication: Posting on AnnArbor.com
Thomas asked how his role as a contributor to AnnArbor.com could be used as a campaign tool. He noted that it seems like a good opportunity to reach many people.
Margolis suggested that AnnArbor.com would probably not allow Thomas to do that. She added that Thomas should consider that he is not only a candidate, but a current board member. “You can say you are responding as an individual, not a member of the board,” Margolis said, “but I think no matter what disclosure you put on there, people are always going to see that … you are a public figure.”
Thomas countered by saying, “This is a completely different animal. On AnnArbor.com, anyone can post anything they want under any name they want.” He pointed out that unless comments are “completely off-base or inflammatory,” they won’t be taken down, but that a candidate running against him could post “bogus facts” about him 10 times a day.
Casey Hans, who was covering the info session for the internal AAPS news service, suggested, “They [AnnArbor.com] are going to have to have an internal discussion about this.” She pointed out that when she worked for the Ann Arbor News, there was always care taken to balance letters to the editor near elections. Margolis wondered whether AnnArbor.com had considered the situation but also noted, “It truly is a limited amount of people that respond time and time again.”
Hans agreed, saying “They might also have a quantity issue with how they are allowing access,” but Thomas asked, “How can you tell that when you are dealing with anonymous posters?” Margolis suggested, “That’s a Tony Dearing question.” [Dearing is chief content officer of AnnArbor.com] Thomas noted that he was “on the verge of calling Tony Dearing” to ask about this.
Nelson encouraged Thomas to ask Dearing whether or not AnnArbor.com will have any rule regarding postings close to the election date. For example, he asked, if someone is inflammatory the Sunday before Tuesday’s election, will they allow it? “Or,” Nelson asked, “are they going to say, as of Wednesday before the election, we’re either going to heavily monitor, or shut down these discussion panels.” He pointed out that, “in some circles, it is a tried and true method” to put out negative ads at the last minute when a candidate does not have time to respond.
Patalan pointed out that these concerns are relevant to candidates running in other races as well. Margolis agreed, saying, “You’ve seen what’s already happened with the mayoral race.” [The Democratic primary contest between challenger Patricia Lesko and incumbent mayor John Hieftje has generated a great deal of passion.]
Patalan commented, “Anonymous contributors are so stressful.” Margolis suggested that everyone “keep perspective” and said that many AnnArbor.com posters are not even local.
Stead noted guidance she had received from the Michigan Association of School boards (MASB): “You are always a board member. In the grocery store, on the soccer field … no amount of caveating helps, you are always a board member.” Patalan noted that if she is in a school, and someone asks her a question, she will sometimes begin her answer with, “‘I am only speaking for myself,’ or ‘I can give you my opinion.’” Nelson commented that someone noted that he was a school board member this week while he was shopping at Kroger. Thomas said that he has not been recognized at the grocery store yet, but Margolis quipped, “You get out there in campaign mode, and that will change.”
Campaign Communication: Other Opportunities
Thomas mentioned that the PTOC always has a candidate forum, and Patalan mentioned that there will be a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters as well. In addition, Patalan said, “the Ann Arbor Observer might ask you for an interview, and WEMU will allow you a couple of minutes.”
Margolis also suggested board members might want to attend Ann Arbor’s Fourth of July parade, saying “It’s one of the most ‘feel-good’ things to be involved with … I wouldn’t encourage people to do it if it wasn’t so positive. You walk away feeling validated.”
Campaigning: Value of Experience
Patalan encouraged the candidates about the value of going through a campaign, “I wouldn’t want to do it every single year, but the process is valuable. It teaches you about yourself and what you stand for.” Thomas agreed that it was valuable, but added that he wished the turnout at the information session would have given him a better indication of who he would be running against.
Stead noted that the real opportunity in a campaign is to gather other people’s perceptions and opinions. “What do people believe the real needs are?” she asked, “Campaigning is an opportunity to listen.”
Nelson pointed out that the recent lack of contested elections has caused people not to be out there talking as much. Especially as incumbents, he told Stead and Thomas, “you will be asked about things, and have this incentive and opportunity to explain it to people. During the campaign, you will be ambassadors.”
Responsibilities of School Board Trustee
Nelson said he had looked up some numbers to see how the school district compares to other local jurisdictions. At $240 million, he noted, the AAPS has a larger budget than the city or the county. If each of the members of the board has a roughly equal influence on the budget, Nelson argued, than each trustee has roughly a $34 million influence on the community. Acknowledging it might just be “navel-gazing,” Nelson concluded, “I really do think [the school board] is an important institution. It’s a large amount of money, and a smaller group of people watching over it.”
Nelson also pointed out that in terms of registered voters, the jurisdiction of school board trustees is greater than that of city councilmembers, county commissioners, or state house members, since school board members are elected at large. Only state senators, Nelson said, have a larger number of constituents.
Patalan asserted that the real difference between running for city council versus running for the board is the board’s non-partisan nature. “You’re running because of the children,” she said.
When Thomas joked, “I thought it was because of the salary,” Margolis quipped back that he might want to reconsider his candidacy. Thomas noted that someone posted on AnnArbor.com that the school board should “take a hit like everyone else” and reduce their own pay. [According to board policy 1600, board members are each paid $130 per month.]
Palalan noted that there is a perception that board members make “a ton of money and that [they] run the schools. The general public thinks we just have that new car our salary bought.” When you think about what other public officials such as city council or state reps make, she said, “we make nothing. It’s a whole different animal being on the school board … It’s so local, it’s all about the children.”
A list of important dates regarding the November board election was distributed at the information session, including:
- Filing Deadline: Tuesday, Aug. 10, 4 p.m.
- Withdrawal Deadline: Friday, Aug. 13, 4 p.m.
- AAPS Candidate Meeting: Monday, Aug. 23, 5:30 p.m., Balas Administration Building
- Candidate Forum, date and time TBA, sponsored by the League of Women Voters
- Deadline for Write-in Candidates to File “Declaration of Intent” form: Friday, Oct. 22, 4 p.m.
- Election Day: Tuesday, Nov. 2, 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Originally, AAPS had planned to hold a second information session later this summer, but Williams said it was getting too difficult to coordinate everyone’s schedule to make it work. Margolis added that the district might offer to help prospective candidates by answering questions instead of holding another meeting. She requested that the board members let her know if they get any public requests for a second session. Patalan added that she would be happy to meet with prospective candidates for coffee or talk to them on the phone.
For more information, prospective candidates to the board of education may contact Williams at 734-994-2233, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For election-specific information, candidates may contact Matt Yankee, the acting elections director at the Washtenaw County clerk’s office, elections division, at 734-222-6730.