November/December 2017

IASB Director of Communications/Editorial Services Gary Adkins answers the question for this issue of the Journal.

Question: Are there fewer incumbents on school boards this year than in most years?

Answer: Records maintained by the Illinois Association of School Boards suggest it has been 14 years since fewer incumbents were returned to office than at the 2017 school board elections in April. While the 2017 count is not final, the numbers are shaping up to be very similar to the 2003 board election, when just 50.1 percent of board incumbents were returned to office. In that year, a total of 1,464 board members were returned to serve another term, far fewer than the total of 1,779 re-elected two years before, or even the 1,711 two years later. At any given time, there are approximately 6,000 school board members in Illinois. Depending on the local election cycle, three or four of a school board’s members are up for the biennial re-election each cycle.

IASB does not track the number of incumbents who do (or do not) seek re-election, but experience suggests that on average: One in three incumbents chooses not to seek re-election, which should account for about 1,000 new board members being added to the board membership rolls in Illinois this year.

Of the approximately 2,000 incumbent school board members who likely sought re-election, between 600 and 1,000 will run unopposed.

Of those who face opposition at the polls, anywhere between 50 and 58 percent win re-election.

Results can diverge tremendously from district to district and year to year, and national studies suggest that incumbents who have sought re-election are successful about 80 percent of the time. Among those incumbent school board members facing opposition, the success rate declines to about 65 percent, meaning there is about a 2:1 chance of re-election.

The defeat of an incumbent may signal voter dissatisfaction with one individual board member or the board as a whole. And sometimes, there may be a variety of reasons leading to defeat of an incumbent, some of which may or may not be in their control.

Voters don’t have to state their reasons; they just have to vote. In fact, voter turnout may be the single largest factor in the success or failure of a candidate to win or retain their seat.

The number of candidates running can also significantly affect the vote tally for any single candidate.

As much as we would like to acknowledge it is what a board or board member has done that matters; sometimes it is how the board or board member has done it, or how well it has been explained or adequately explaining why.

While the mood of the electorate may be fickle, staying in tune with community values and aspirations, and effectively representing them on the board — tenets of IASB’s governance principles — makes more sense than ever.