During a national election cycle defined by turmoil and often unpredictable outcomes, school board elections in America’s largest school districts by enrollment
- In 2014, the top 1,000 was based on the 2011-2012 school year.
- In 2015, the top 1,000 was based on the 2012-2013 school year.
- In 2016, the top 1,000 was based on the 2013-2014 school year.
For more information, see Largest school districts in the United States by enrollment.
produced few surprises. After decreased success rates in 2015, the rate of incumbent success increased significantly in 2016. Although results are still pending in five districts, initial returns indicate that incumbents were more likely to retain their seats on Tuesday by roughly 20 percentage points, compared to 2015.
Across 424 school districts, 1,357 seats were up for grabs in 25 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Overall, 2,473 candidates officially filed to retain, or win, these seats.
Of the candidates seeking election on Tuesday, 651 (26.32 percent) were unopposed. That is a decrease of roughly 3 percent over the 253 (28.89 percent) candidates that were unopposed in 2015. In 2014, 32.60 percent of all school board candidates were unopposed. Just over 36 percent of all school board candidates running in this week’s races were incumbents seeking re-election. An average of 1.72 candidates filed per seat, which was a decrease of only 0.04 percent over the number of candidates filing per seat in 2015.
The complex nature of school board elections makes it difficult to accurately predict incumbent re-election rates, and no one factor can completely account for incumbent success across the board. In 2016, the average number of candidates running per seat may have increased over the previous year, but the circumstances surrounding this increase are difficult to pin down. For instance, only a handful of school districts attracted large numbers of candidates during the 2016 election. In Michigan’s Detroit Public Schools Community District, an unprecedented 63 candidates filed to run for seven seats on a newly created school board. This translated to nine candidates running per position. Similarly, the Pulaski County Special School District in Arkansas attracted 14 candidates for seven seats on a reconstituted school board, meaning that two candidates ran per seat. Both of these districts faced a restructuring of the school board, which may account for the increased interest in these elections.
A redistricting scandal in North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System did not seem to affect its incumbents, as five of the six who filed for re-election retained their seats. A similar story played out in the Clark County School District in Nevada. The district will undergo a radical overhaul beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, which was supported by the school board and district administrators. While many community members and activists spoke out against the plan, three of four incumbents were ultimately re-elected.
Controversy surrounding individual candidates also proved to be a poor predictor of incumbent success. In the months leading up to the election in California’s Oakland Unified School District, allegations of mismanagement and discrimination in the district’s charter schools were made in court. Of the four incumbents running to retain their seats, three received campaign contributions and political support from pro-charter interest groups. Each of these incumbents was re-elected to an additional term. Controversy also failed to affect incumbents in Pinellas County Schools in Florida. An incumbent was re-elected to the board although a civil rights investigation into the district’s treatment of minority students is ongoing. This investigation spawned a report that dubbed the district’s schools “Failure Factories.” Complainants argue that a vote by the school board in 2007 effectively re-segregated the district, leading to large disparities in student performance between racial groups.
The tables below compare the incumbent and challenger success rates as well as the percentage of unopposed seats from 2014 through the present.