Tuesday, August 25, 2009

School board lines shaping up

School board lines shaping up in Johnson County

School elections are harder to handicap than partisan general elections. Turnout is low, voter cues like party are absent, and factors like local geography play a bigger role.

The September 8 school board election may also sneak up on people thanks to calendar quirks. It's immediately preceded by Hawkeye home opener weekend and Labor Day on Monday.

In another complication the ballot for the Iowa City district includes two candidates -- Josh Kaine and Jeffrey Manthey -- who quit the race after the deadline.

Geography may play a bigger role than usual in the Iowa City contest. Anne Johnson of North Liberty is campaigning on the third high school issue, and incumbent Mike Cooper is also from rural North Liberty.

Despite the board's high profile decision to close Roosevelt Elementary after the 2010-11 school year (full disclosure: I'm a Roosevelt dad) no one from the Roosevelt parent's group emerged as a candidate. The only candidate identified with the older elementary schools is Sarah Swisher of the Longfellow neighborhood, and several of her signs have popped up near Roosevelt.

Signs don't vote, goes the old saying, but a commonly seen cluster is Cooper, Johnson and April Armstrong. The three are also hosting at least one joint coffee.

Partisanship may also play a role in the officially non-partisan election. Even mentioning affiliations in a non-partisan context is controversial. "It isn't the party that matters at the board level," writes mid-term board member Patti Fields, who's also an active Democrat. "It is about the work and dedication. Give me a candidate that represents more than one issue and understands the hard work involved."

That said, it's no secret that Swisher is a former Johnson County Democratic Party chair. Tuyet Dorau has also had some Democratic involvement, though she's currently registered with no party (as is Johnson). Dorau was also seen working the crowd at Rep. Dave Loebsack's health care forum, which produced a Democratic-leaning crowd.

Cooper, Armstrong, and Jean Jordison are registered Republicans, though none are highly identified with the local GOP (as was, for example, 2007 candidate Deb Thornton).

Voters can vote for three candidates, but don't have to use all three choices, lending a "Survivor" aspect to the proceedings: a vote for your second or third choice could push your first choice to an off-the-island fourth place.

Unlike the other Johnson County school districts, Clear Creek Amana has three separate contests this year for three seats. Elections almost always break out on Clear Creek vs. Amana lines, even 15 years after the two districts merged. It makes me wonder how my father-in-law, former CCA superintendent Bob Steele, ever managed to shoehorn the two districts together.

District 2 incumbent Kathy Zimmerman won 97 percent in the Amana precinct last year, where she ran for a special one-year term as part of the transition to four year terms. And that 97 percent isn't unusual for Amana; I've seen 99 more than once. Zimmerman's opponent, Eileen Schmidt, ran last year for a different seat as a write-in, and won 82 percent in Tiffin despite not being on the ballot.

Clear Creek Amana has often seen write-in campaigns, which usually play out below the radar. There will be at least one write-in winner: District 4 incumbent Mike Croco moved out of the school district and no one filed for the seat.

At large CCA candidates Barbara Kounkel and Aimee Pitlick are both first-time contenders. Pitlick signs have popped up in the Tiffin and Oxford area.

Solon has seen a series of high turnout elections in recent years after a battle over school library books that were seen by some as too gay-friendly. David Asprey almost defeated Dick Schwab in 2005, then won a seat in 2006. He's up again this year, along with his former campaign manager Lianne Westcot, who was appointed to the board last year after board member Ben Pardini's death. Schwab, meanwhile, is attempting a comeback after a year off the board.

With four candidates in a vote for three contest, the Survivor aspect in Solon means people may vote to block--that is, vote for the three other candidates to prevent their least favorite candidate from winning. That may help the fourth candidate, Gene Lawson, who's not prominently identified with either side.

Lone Tree is simple: Three seats, three incumbents running for re-election. Lone Tree has seen write-in races, but those were in city elections during a contentious era on the city council.

The regional and partisan splits may ripple into the Kirkwood levy question. In the 2005 Solon contest, the Yes totals on a Kirkwood bond measure and a Solon school levy almost exactly mirrored Schwab's vote, while the No count lined up with Asprey's numbers. And if a partisan, tea party dynamic turns up in Iowa City, the mood may be reflected in the Kirkwood levy totals.

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