Primary Voting

A voter looks over his ballot inside the polling place at Brightside Baptist Church Tuesday morning May 16, 2017.

That wasn’t white-out on your primary ballot last week; there just weren’t enough candidates to fill vacant seats in some districts.

Such was the case in Columbia Borough, Manheim Central, Pequea Valley and Solanco school districts, where incomplete slates of candidates were seeking the unpaid, often thankless position of school board director.

The paucity of candidates begs the question whether fewer residents are willing to put their public image on the line by serving on a school board.

“You might be able to answer why residents aren’t running by asking yourself,” Pennsylvania School Boards Association spokesman Steve Robinson said.

Robinson said that although becoming a public servant is “very rewarding,” school board directors often receive more flak than they might deserve.

“A lot of those positions are maybe not given the proper thanks that is due to them,” he said. “They’re looking into sometimes challenging finances that requires them to really take a look at things and make some tough decisions.”

Perhaps the toughest decision of all: raising property taxes.

“I don’t think anybody wants to take the blame for raising property taxes,” Jonathan Lutz, Columbia’s Republican committee chair, said.

Particularly in Columbia, a school district taking up just 3 square miles, it doesn’t take long for word of controversial decisions to spread. Columbia, mind you, has the highest school tax rate in the county.

In such a condensed town where “everybody knows who you are,” Lutz said, decisions made by the school board are more magnified than those made at larger school districts.

“You’re doing things that impact your next-door neighbor, the guy down the street, the guy that you see every week at the grocery store,” he said. “People don’t want to go to the grocery store and have to answer questions about property tax issues.”

Voter apathy

Deb Miller, district leader of the Columbia Area Democratic Club, said the shortage of candidates is likely because of voter apathy.

Miller said teaching government and civics in schools can help residents, particularly in poverty-stricken areas, engage again in local politics.

“They don’t know that they have a voice to govern themselves,” she said.

One Republican and no Democrat sought the nominations for a pair of two-year seats up for election this year in Columbia.

Other school board openings with no candidates were a four-year seat and a two-year seat in Manheim Central, a four-year seat in Pequea Valley and a four-year seat in Solanco.

Write-in votes

Empty spots on the ballot aren’t the end of the story, though.

After the county’s nearly 15,000 write-in votes were counted in the days following the primary, at least one candidate in three of those five uncontested races earned enough write-in votes for his candidacy to be considered for November.

The spots in Columbia’s and Manheim Central’s two-year races went unfilled even after write-in votes were considered.

According to county chief elections clerk Randall Wenger, a write-in candidate needed at least 10 votes — and one vote more than any other write-in candidate — to be offered a party’s nomination for school board.

Write-in candidates who receive enough votes, Wenger said, will be notified and given a 30-day window to confirm their candidacy and file a statement of financial interests.

If no write-in candidates make it past that stage, and there aren’t enough candidates elected to a school board in November, that board would be responsible for filling any vacant seat.

School boards, Robinson said, have 30 days to appoint someone to a vacant seat. If unsuccessful, a group of 10 taxpayers can file an appeal to shift the responsibility of filling the vacancy to the courts.

In November, a write-in candidate vying for an uncontested vacant school board seat would need just one vote — and one more than any other write-in candidate — to be offered the position.