On Monday, October 23, the Rancho Santa Fe school board is about to appoint its third member within six years, defining the majority of the board (total of five seats), without an election. It is an unprecedented compromise of voter rights, and it is time to object.
Across the nation, a school board member of a public school district is an elected position. This is well-established and fundamental to our education system and our nation – the right of communities to elect their school board members, and for school board members to reflect the community’s voice in the leadership of local public schools. Yet Rancho Santa Fe is on the verge of accepting a school board majority selected initially by appointment.
For a public school district, R. Roger Rowe School is already run too much like a closely held partnership. The RSF Education Foundation leadership is appointed; the Endowment leadership is appointed; and after Monday, a majority of the school board will have been appointed. When academic performance ranks far below spending per student, and enrollment is down, this is not the time to squeeze out community.
It is known that in RSF incumbents are rarely, if ever, voted out, and school board meetings are sparsely attended. Knowing that, the board’s decision to appoint rather than to elect is particularly objectionable. Complacent voters assume that candidates marked “incumbent” on the ballot were initially elected and vetted thoroughly, so appointed candidates never undergo the same scrutiny. Winning subsequently on a ballot marked “incumbent” does not meet the same bar as winning initially by election.
Of the four current members, only two initially earned their seats in public election. The other two were appointed, one in 2011 and one in 2016. If the school board proceeds with its plans for a third appointment, then an unprecedented majority of the five board members will have come into their seat by appointment.
Rancho Santa Fe is fortunate to have eminently qualified people in our community who would make outstanding leaders for our school board. Our community’s challenge is to select among them in a responsible democratic way, honoring voters’ rights and ensuring that all school board candidates are vetted by the community on a level playing field.
There is only a small window in the election cycle when an appointment is allowed to fill a seat vacated by resignation. It is interesting that the timing of three successive resignations have all hit these narrow windows and missed the deadline for inclusion in the November ballot by a few weeks. Regardless of the coincidence, it is bad practice to bypass elections repeatedly in order to fill sequential vacancies by appointment.
Appointments typically allow a smaller number of board members to gain disproportionate influence. By appointing an additional member who is like-minded, existing members can leverage their influence on agendas, such as a bond measure or strategic plan.
Rancho Santa Fe should not accept another school board member by appointment. The currently vacant seat calls out for a special election to uphold the community voice on our school board.