It’s no secret that Oregon school board elections, including Bend-La Pine’s, have historically not been competitive — or required much money to win.
In 2015, four out of five school board races in the state had either an unopposed candidate or no one running at all, according to data gathered by the Oregon School Boards Association. This year, eight candidates running for four Bend-La Pine seats isn’t even the most amazing fact. It’s the tens of thousands of dollars candidates are raising to stay competitive.
Why the money?
The candidates say they looked around at the competition and figured they better get to fundraising.
A representative with the Oregon School Boards Association said Friday when unions get involved supporting candidates, that often bumps up the amount of money thrown in.
Beyond donations from individuals who support her message, Carrie Douglass received about a third of her $20,800 in cash contributions from two local unions — Oregon School Employees Association and Bend Education Association — and a statewide one, the Oregon Education Association. Angela Chisum, running for the Zone 1 position, also received donations from the same three unions.
Thursday, the two candidates made clear their acceptance of donations from the teachers and classified employees unions will have no bearing on their future decisions. Contracts for both local unions are up for negotiation right now. Douglass, who was appointed Feb. 28 after Nori Juba resigned before the end of his term, currently serves on the board, but she is not a board representative working directly in bargaining negotiations, as originally planned.
When Douglass took a donation from that union, Board Chair Peggy Kinkade asked her to reconsider.
“Initially I thought it might be a good opportunity for Carrie to learn about the process in our district and to get to know the district staff,” Kinkade said. “I had invited her to participate and she said she would and then after that group made a donation to her, she and I talked.”
Kinkade said she reached out to Douglass to discuss whether it would be appropriate for her to be the board representative in those negotiations after she accepted $2,000 from the Oregon School Employees Association. Another board member, Ron Gallinat, will instead be the board representative in on those negotiations.
Kinkade said in general, she doesn’t really feel uneasy with Douglass accepting union donations.
“I don’t really foresee a problem,” Kinkade said. “I hope it’s not a problem to be voting on a contract.”
Kinkade said she thinks “there was wisdom” in taking Douglass out of that role before bargaining had even started. Although Douglass won’t be the board representative in bargaining discussions, she will still get to vote on employee contracts as a board member.
Kinkade has received a union endorsement in the past from the Bend Education Association, but she declined the donation that was offered.
While some may argue several of Reinhart’s campaign contributions come from builders at a time when a $268.3 million general construction bond is being put before voters, Reinhart pointed out an important distinction: School board members do not decide who receives construction bids.
It used to be that a couple of school board representatives would serve on a committee with district staff to consider bids, but former school board member Juba and current school board member Andy High pushed for a change about a year ago. The committee is now made up of district staff and community members.
A different type of school board race
Kinkade is highly encouraged by the heightened interest in running for Bend-La Pine School Board seats, but she has some concerns about so much money becoming a part of the election.
“What worries me about a lot of money being raised is that may be a deterrent in the future to people throwing their hat in the ring,” Kinkade said. “I know that will discourage some people.”
If a candidate expects to receive or spend more than $750 to support a candidacy, the candidate must keep detailed financial records current to within seven days of receiving a contribution or spending money.
Douglass was the first to file a campaign contribution — for $5 — on Feb. 26. Reinhart filed a campaign contribution for $750 on March 3, Cheri Helt for $100 on March 18 and her opponent Chisum for $215 on March 22.
Beyond receiving $7,000 from unions, Chisum has raised about $1,000, mostly in small donations from individuals, including her parents, friends and teachers, she said.
Chisum has been spending her campaign funds on yard signs, local radio ads, mailers and handouts. That’s the case for most of the other three candidates, too. Chisum said she had no qualms about the union endorsements — or accepting their campaign donations.
“I was happy to get their endorsements because the bottom line is, unions support teachers, who are the ones on the front lines every day with our most treasured assets, which are our children,” Chisum said.
Chisum said she’s honored to feel the unions trust her, since “they have not felt that they were part of the conversation with my opponent.”
Helt has been open for years about her support for reforming the state’s Public Employees Retirement System.
“I have a strong belief to further Oregon education, we have to make PERS a sustainable system; we have to reform,” Helt said. “I believe I differ from union leadership on that.”
It’s Helt’s third time on the ballot, but the large amounts of fundraising is all new to her, too. In her previous races she never filed a PAC.
“For me the focus really is the work and trying to promote the work I’ve done,” Helt said. “I don’t want to be campaigning.”
Helt said she considers the school board more of a community service position than a political one, but she realized she needed money to be competitive.
A new norm?
Two main factors are making this Bend-La Pine School Board election a lot different than the past: only one candidate is unopposed and the amount of money being poured into campaigns.
“If you look around the state — there are 197 K-12 districts — most of the time, these school board races are uncontested,” said Alex Pulaski, communications director for the Oregon School Boards Association.
That’s why OSBA put together its Get On Board campaign to encourage Oregonians to run for their local school boards.
“Our goal wasn’t to create expensive school board races,” Pulaski said. “Our goal was for lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds to be interested in running.”
But he’s under no illusions that OSBA’s Get On Board campaign was the sole catalyst for heightened involvement in Oregon school board races, including in Bend-La Pine.
“What’s probably happening there appears to be an effect of the Trump election escalating public interest in how our governments function, including schools,” Pulaski said. “Interest in public affairs has reached a level that many of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes.”
Pulaski described Bend-La Pine Schools as “one of the very best districts in Oregon.”
“It’s had a lot of community support because of what Bend is,” he said. “You have a very vibrant community with a lot of educated people, so it’s going to have tendencies that are more like Portland. Portland has had these highly contested races.”
But while he can’t say whether this kind of race is the new norm for Bend-La Pine, there is a predictor for how big money can start being introduced, Pulaski said.
“We do know in different areas of the state unions, in particular teachers unions, run candidates,” Pulaski said. “The entrance of a union candidate in a race is going to tend to have the effect of raising the amount of money being spent.”
It’s hard to say whether more money in a school board election is good or bad, Pulaski said.
“I would say our belief is school board positions are extremely important and it’s a great thing when you have motivated people running for those positions,” Pulaski said. “But of course if you’re an incumbent and you’re doing a fantastic job and love what you’re doing, it’s difficult.”
Incumbents who feel they have been doing a good job of serving their community in an unpaid, albeit rewarding, position, may resent the need to raise money just to be competitive in an election, he said.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, email@example.com