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Lawmakers consider partisan school board elections

The Hatch Act bans federal workers, like military members and postal workers, from participating in partisan elections.

INDIANAPOLIS — Three bills filed by Indiana legislators would require candidates for school board to declare their party affiliation. Lawmakers said it's to bring more transparency, however current board members worry it will make school board meetings more volatile.

"Well, all of it's political — let's get that straight — no matter what party you're a part of," said Sen. Jeff Raatz.

"Kids should not be pawns in political party politics," said mother Shelley Clark.

During 2021, school board meetings became the battleground for debates on everything from masks, to critical race theory, to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Some Republican lawmakers said those debates led constituents to want to know the politics of their school board members.

Sen. Raatz co-authored SB 144. It would not require, but allow school board candidates to declare their party affiliation. However, two House bills would require candidates to put a letter by their name.

So far, the only bill to have a hearing is HB 1182. Rep. JD Prescott said party affiliation will help voters better know their candidates.

"When I look at Republicans and Democrats, I think you can tell the difference between financial responsibility, moral character in some cases," Prescott said. 

Prescott said his constituents asked for the bill. During its first committee hearing, 21 people testified. All were against the idea.

They worry partisan politics may lead to more contentious school board meetings. Also, that it would limit who will run for office.

The Hatch Act bans federal workers from participating in partisan elections. That means military members, postal workers and many others would not be able to serve on Indiana school boards if those elections became partisan.

Janet Pritchett, with the HSE School Board, said she also thinks it will scare away people who don't want to get involved in party politics.

"I think it would deter some very qualified folks from wanting to run," she said.

Rep. Prescott told the committee more money and party input would be allowed.

"I think this is just another tool where party chairs can actually go out and help recruit candidates for these school board members to help increase transparency and bring more accountability to the voters," he said.

Indiana isn't alone in trying to push partisan school board elections. This is a national conversation. Florida, Arizona and Missouri lawmakers are considering similar plans, and Tennessee just passed a partisan school board elections bill in the fall.

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