Usually, you have to find a disgruntled campaign staffer for a behind the scenes look at a political campaign. But, here at Masson-for-School-Board, we run a lean operation. Unless Amy is looking to sell a book, it’s going to have to be me telling the tale. I doubt this will change the vote count very much. With early voting having been under way for the better part of a month, I expect almost anyone interested in reading this has already voted. Maybe something for posterity or of interest to my regular blog readers.
First, the context: I’m a non-incumbent looking to get on the board of a school ranked top in the state which has a teaching staff ranked fourth best in the nation. The current board and administration have largely been in place for ten years or more. The finances and strength of the school are better now than when they took over. For a challenger in a typical political race, the normal approach would be to attack the record of the incumbent. That’s an uphill battle when things are going reasonably well. But, with four slots to fill, the context is a little different; particularly with one of the incumbents not campaigning. It’s fortunate that I don’t have to pursue the standard two-person approach. Dissatisfaction with the school is not really what I’m about. I’m a huge supporter of our schools, and think I have a skill set that might be valuable in that position. I want to get elected, but if I don’t, the schools will be fine.
With that as the background, I made the decision to focus on my experience as an attorney with a background in local government law, my history of volunteering in support of the school, a desire to improve the school by advancing the strategic plan I participated in developing, and my generally friendly demeanor. However, in a crowded down-ballot race, simply having good qualities probably isn’t enough to get elected. In an ideal world, every citizen goes into the voting booth having carefully weighed the pros and cons of each candidate on the ballot before casting his or her vote. In our world, however, there will be a sizable number of voters who go into the voting booth with Trump v. Biden on their mind and will be absolutely befuddled by any school board race, let alone one that presents them with fifteen candidates. Name recognition will be important.
In my mind, the big endorsement available for this race was from the teacher’s association — the WLEA. So, I definitely wanted to pursue that. One of the items on the WLEA interview questionnaire asked whether the candidate would accept PAC money if the candidate received the teacher’s association endorsement. Even though it became a source of consternation later (more on that below), I assume most of the candidates who interviewed for the endorsement stated (as did I) that they would accept such assistance. For my part, in addition to genuinely wanting the support of the teachers, I also wanted assistance in getting some name recognition. The unfortunate political reality is that name recognition probably earns more votes than policy positions or other substantive qualities. I felt, correctly as it turned out, I had a good shot at getting the WLEA endorsement: I had worked shoulder-to-shoulder with a number of WLEA members on such things as the 2017 referendum and strategic plan workshops. And I’ve been a full-throated supporter of their efforts to improve teacher pay, limit diversion of state funds to charters and vouchers, and move away from wasteful high-stakes testing.
The final, and maybe biggest, arrow in my quiver is being married to an inveterate organizer who is also extraordinarily tech savvy. I don’t know if I’ll win or lose, but my wife is a born campaign manager. We put together what feels like a pretty good social media campaign for this kind of race. We’ll see if that translates to votes.
One of the big wildcards from this race came from the political action committee I mentioned earlier. If you haven’t heard anything else about this race, you’ve probably heard about the RDP PAC. In a 15 person campaign with no defining issues that seem to encompass all of the candidates, it seems to be the only handle our local news outlets have been able to get in terms of a narrative for the race. They’ve run a couple of stories on it. Sometime between the close of the candidate filing window but before the WLEA endorsements were made, RDP PAC determined to provide money to promote whoever the teacher’s association ended up endorsing. The PAC sent out a ham-fisted fundraising letter that conjured the specter of the 90s when West Lafayette stumbled through a disgruntled school board and the troubled tenure (not to mention litigious termination) of Stella Battagianis. The letter warned ominously that selection of unnamed candidates might return us to those days. Basically, “send some money in support of whoever the WLEA endorses, and we can keep the good times going. (Don’t send money and the bad old days might return.)” On its own, that letter probably would have been inconsequential. The distribution couldn’t have been very wide. It probably went to some people, but I don’t know anyone who received it in the wild. A PAC campaign finance disclosure revealed about a dozen contributors, and it’s hard to believe many of the names on the list would’ve needed that letter to contribute.
But the letter was not to die in obscurity. Instead, it got a signal boost by a post in a local Facebook group whereupon a sort of Streisand Effect took hold. The act of decrying the letter served to amplify it. And this group made a bit of a meal of the thing. As I mentioned above, given the strength of our schools, I thought it would be challenging to win the race by being very critical of them. I think this PAC letter (as amplified by local news and social media) made that approach more challenging. Remember that the letter itself was non-committal as to who the scary candidates might be. With so many people running, it could be any of them or none of them in particular. But it created a risk that some of the non-incumbent candidates might self-identify themselves as being analogs of their mid-90s counterparts if they protested the letter too much and/or were perceived as being too critical of the apparently successful West Lafayette schools.
Whether the PAC money itself will prove to be of any use remains to be seen. But, as I write this, its efforts don’t appear to be terribly influential. As of the October filing date, it had spent about $8,000. (The Journal & Courier inflated that number by more than 200%, mistaking the “cash on hand” line item for expenditures.) That money was spent on signs for other candidates (I already had mine from four years ago), some sign-toppers indicating the WLEA endorsement, a four-person sign that doesn’t seem to have wide distribution, and a text to voters urging support of the four WLEA-endorsed candidates. Whether or how it will spend the remainder of the money it raised, I have no idea. Maybe it will blanket the airwaves with ads. Maybe it will give every voter in the district root beer and pie. Maybe it will do nothing. In the final analysis, I might end up taking more of a hit from the WLEA endorsement and its PAC association than I benefit. But, you make your decisions and you take your lumps. We’ll see what happens.
Other candidates have pursued their own strategies. Many of those approaches, I can’t match, don’t agree with the substance, question the strategic value, or some combination thereof. For example, one candidate has been a juggernaut at sign distribution. If signs win elections, congratulations to her in advance, because I just couldn’t keep pace.
Another approach was to focus on “transparency.” A lot of candidates were critical of the school’s COVID re-opening plan. (And, coming as that did during the candidate filing window, I suspect that was the trigger for a lot of our candidates jumping in.) For my part, I thought the school could have done a better job of communicating its thinking and outlining the variables it had to deal with when making its decisions. But, as I write this, the school’s COVID plan has been far more successful than I had anticipated. I think for some candidates, the success of the substance of the COVID plan caused a shift in focus to the more procedural notion of transparency.
From a purely strategic perspective, I think process matters like transparency mostly don’t appeal to constituents unless they are already upset about substantive matters. For example, years ago, I remember being critical of members of Congress when they stopped conducting “town halls.” But, truth be told, I never had much interest in those town halls when I approved of what Congress was doing. When that changed, my real concern wasn’t the town hall. I mostly wanted to see members of Congress get yelled at for the substantive things I disagreed with. As a practical matter, “transparency” is an ambiguous term that’s tough for me to embrace before it’s been defined pretty thoroughly. I have a great deal of expertise with Indiana’s public records and open door laws. I’ve won probably dozens of favorable opinions from Indiana’s Public Access Counselor over the last twenty years. I support full compliance with these requirements. But the kind of free-wheeling public meetings that a few of the candidates seem to contemplate (unless I misunderstand the limitations they would impose on the proceedings) just seem too unworkable for me to promote in support of my own campaign. Over the years, I estimate that I’ve attended more than a thousand governmental meetings in one capacity or another. Those meetings need structure to be productive.
By way of analogy, consider a social media group with no moderator. The conversation comes to be dominated by the same handful of people who like to re-visit the same issues. The passionate few tend to drive out or silence the average member, and there’s a tendency toward wheel-spinning. Government-by-YouTube-comment-section is not a recipe for success. To get its job done, a governmental body has to impose structure on its meetings that will be regarded by some percentage of the population as censorship or lack of transparency. There are similarly issues with public records. The law requires some to be public, requires some to be confidential, and gives the governmental body discretion on others. I usually advise clients to err on the side of disclosure. But there is a cost in terms of money and/or labor to sort these documents. If not many people are looking at them, then there’s a real question about the cost/benefit equation to making records available before anyone has asked for them. So, as a practical matter, I’m cautious about embracing “transparency” as a policy without knowing exactly what we’re talking about. And, as a strategic matter, I’m just not convinced it’s a burning issue for a lot of voters.
A couple of candidates have tried to make the case that there’s a problem with our teacher retention. This is a tough argument to make for a variety of reasons. First of all, there’s that risk of inadvertently self-identifying with the otherwise unidentified “scary” candidates in the PAC letter. Beyond that, it’s hard to make the case that a teaching staff ranked fourth in the country is all that unhappy. Our teachers are paid better than average and our teacher retention is better than the state average. And, unless you’re very careful about who you name or what statistics you use, you quickly run into the fact that, for example, some of the teachers were very happy at West Side but had to leave for personal reasons, some were just retiring because they’d finished a long and successful career, and there were some that we probably didn’t want to retain for various reasons. Without navigating those shoals very carefully, even meritorious concerns about teacher satisfaction will be overshadowed. As a strategic matter, it gave one of the incumbents an opportunity to elevate his profile by providing facts and figures on the subject.
Teachers everywhere face a challenging situation. I believe the health of our schools depend on us seeking ways to relieve the stressors on teachers, to treat them as professionals, and to give them the space they need to exercise that professionalism. But, inasmuch as the lot of a West Side teacher is probably better than the lot of a teacher in most other parts of the state, it’s tough to score points against the current school administration as part of a school board campaign.
School finance is another area where a few candidates have tried to rise above the field. This is a challenging path. Local government finance is, quite frankly, a thicket with snares beset by other snares. For example, schools and other units of local government use a governmental building corporation when they want to issue bonds for construction. One or two candidates got out over their skis when they took notice of the school’s governmental building corporation and called it a “shell company.” I get it. If you haven’t seen it before, it looks fishy. Why the hell would you need a separate corporation to take out bonds and then lease you the new building? But there are historical reasons why basically every unit of local government in Indiana that wants to build something uses these corporations and have done so for probably eighty years. That being the case, coming out strong with a phrase like “shell company” with insinuations that something untoward was involved is bound to backfire.
There were questions about whether past referendum money was spent on debt financing. But that was based on a state document that turned out to have an error. There was the notion that reducing the money coming out of our debt service fund could somehow open up money for operations. But that’s not allowed under state law: money from the debt service tax rate can only be used for capital expenses and the ability to increase the operations tax levy is limited by the State. There was the notion that reducing the money coming out of our debt service fund could at least reduce taxes for West Lafayette taxpayers. But given how our tax cap and circuit breaker system works, reducing debt service taxes would probably serve mostly to give more money to the City of West Lafayette and Tippecanoe County government. On the upside for me, all of that gave me the opportunity to stretch my legs a little with a blog post about the intricacies of local government finance. Other than my puppy video, that finance post got way more traffic than anything else I’ve done in this campaign.Which shocked me. Because local government finance is, as it turns out, not exciting.
Now the school finance argument has shifted to speculation about whether future payments for construction might possibly require use of referendum funds. But, as the man said, there’s many a slip ‘twixt a cup and a lip. A lot of variables will be at play between now and then, and the folks who have navigated school finances reasonably well for a decade will probably find a way to deal with the next challenge. The potential for disagreeable actions in the future isn’t nearly as compelling as the transgressions originally alleged. And, after all, this construction debt served a purpose: there was a need to build and renovate.
It’s tricky navigation as a campaign strategy to begin with, and the evolving nature of the allegations might make it easy for a voter to tune out.
Knocking on doors and word-of-mouth
I’m not sure if any candidate is knocking on doors, but it’s something I had wanted to do when I originally envisioned running for school board again. Back in 2016, I didn’t knock on any doors, and I lost by four votes. In 2017, campaigning for the referendum, I knocked on a lot of doors. I found out I was good at it, and I liked it. What I didn’t envision was that the 2020 campaign would be in the midst of a global pandemic. Even if I was comfortable going door-to-door (which I’m not), I think the voters who answer the door would be put off by that sort of risky behavior in pursuit of votes. It might well lose me more votes than I gained. Ultimately I decided to take a pass on that campaign strategy.
The biggest wild-card is word of mouth. I can see the stuff that’s taking place online. But, the Internet is not necessarily the same as real life. I saw this play out in the Democratic Presidential primaries. On the Internet, Sanders supporters were legion: they were active, and they were everywhere. In real life, they were rather thinner on the ground. I have no idea how word-of-mouth is going in the West Lafayette school district. Even if I thought I had the pulse of what was being said within the school community, the fact remains that there are a lot of voters with no kids in the school at all. Unfortunately, I don’t have Nate Silver giving me the daily update of polling data in the district. So, my vision of how the race is going may be badly skewed.
Ultimately, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is a local race with friends and neighbors involved. When this is over, we still need to work with and among each other. We’ll run into each other at the grocery store, in the schools, and on the sidewalks. I know it’s been harder on some folks than others — maybe harder on candidates’ families and friends than on the candidates themselves. It’s easier to take incoming fire yourself than to watch it happening to a loved one. I feel like I’ve had an easier time than most. Maybe years of trading barbs with opposing counsel in litigation has made me numb. Mostly I feel like this has been a positive experience, and all of the support has been humbling. I suppose it’s an inevitable part of campaigning, but it’s still a little weird listening to other people say nice things about you and having them put your sign in their yard.
In any event, that’s some background on how I’ve seen the race. I wanted to write this down before knowing the results colored my impressions. There’s a fantastic chance I’ll be wildly off-base with respect to what I think are winning and losing approaches. With a fifteen person field in a down-ballot race, it’s tough to call any strategy a winner. And, lest anyone forget, I’m the only person who has managed to lose a West Lafayette School Board race in at least 15 years. The only thing I can say for sure is that in the very near future, I will have a lot of company. For now, I’ll cross my fingers and hope for the best.