Participation matters for schools
SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Since the Helena-West Helena School District Community Advisory Board announced at the March meeting of the Arkansas Board of Education its plan to hold the coming school board elections in November with a redistricting plan that called for five single-member zones and two at-large positions, the district has been the subject of considerable discussion and I have been contacted numerous times from parties locally and statewide.
Nearly everyone weighing in on this topic has asked why we have gone against what appears to be the prevailing wisdom throughout Arkansas.
The first answer is that participation matters. Engagement between a community and its school district leads to trust and involvement. For decades, Helena-West Helena has seen board elections result in leadership of the district being elected by a very small group of people with very narrow interests. Over time, this resulted in substantial portions of our constituency losing faith and feeling left out. That led to more disengagement and distrust. More families left the system and disengaged totally from this indispensable work.
Our schools suffered. Our community suffered. Something needed to change. As our board began to prepare for the local control we yearned to have, our board made a decision that openness, transparency, and participation should be maximized when electing the governing leadership of our school district.
Thankfully, state Sen. Jane English sponsored Act 1281, which was supported by Sen. Keith Ingram and Rep. Chris Richey. This law changed the school election law to provide us with an option to move the elections to November. Our advisory board courageously and unanimously agreed that this was the best way to re-engage our community in the process of electing a school board.
We are grateful that Commissioner Johnny Key approved our redistricting plan and request for a November election.
Instead of a few hundred selecting the school board, we will have a few thousand involved in this process, based on past turnouts for general elections held in November. It is our belief that this will result in increased community engagement with our district in other areas as well, and begin to restore hope and faith among the vast majority of those residing in our district.
In short, it is the beginning of a process and we already see more optimism as we discuss the coming elections with our patrons. In fact, by taking this action and seeking out more community input in this process, we believe we have increased our chances of passing a millage to do a much-needed transformation of our high school facilities. We will seek that increase in November as well.
September elections are inevitably low turnout because most people are just getting kids back in school and focusing on that routine which is filled with extracurricular activities. We shouldn’t be making it harder for them to participate by having a low-key election with one or two issues when so many aren’t paying attention to political matters.
We shouldn’t want a board elected by a skewed subset of the community that represents a very narrow interest. History shows that was a disaster for the Helena-West Helena School District. We believe moving with a November vote will result in a brighter future, more stable governance, and provide substantial dividends in the long term in the form of increased trust and support from a wide and diverse swath of our community.
That is good for our district, our students, and our community. Great things happen every day in the Helena-West Helena Schools.
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Andrew Bagley is the president of the Community Advisory Board for the Helena-West Helena School District.