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Get in the game, vote for the kids

Nov 4, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

When choosing a school board member, avoid those who seem to have an ax to grind.

Who is the only person on American currency never elected to a national office? If you said Benjamin Franklin, you are correct.

Perhaps the wise man from Philadelphia knew even more than he let on when it came to elected office.

Franklin's idioms often pop up in daily conversation. In this final week before local, state and national elections, perhaps Franklin's most applicable lexical invention is "He has an ax to grind." The colloquial saying is often used today to describe someone running for office with a specifically selfish goal in mind, usually the firing of someone he feels has wronged him or a myriad of other ulterior motives.

The airwaves are full of campaign advertising for the presidency, and even a few for our national offices. But in Wyoming, at least since the days of Gale McGee and Teno Roncalio, the national stage is played by only characters from the Republican cast, Democrats need not apply.

That holds true for the national legislature, but the governor's office is uniquely bipartisan here in the Cowboy State. You can get worked up on the GOP platform, the Tea Party or in support of the current president, but it really doesn't matter. Wyoming will vote Republican in national elections, and even a GOP candidate felony scandal wouldn't keep the people from voting for the elephant.

The real challenge in Wyoming politics comes down to local elections -- to commissioners, state representatives and perhaps most importantly, if you are a parent or a grandparent, to the local school board elections.

You can find extremists running for office at nearly every level and in various agencies, but the local school board races get the award for getting the fringe, the "they only come out at night" crowd, and the people with personal agendas to apply.

I guess the commonality is that everyone went to school, and somehow that makes everyone an expert on how a local school district should run.

In some districts it is commonplace to see jilted vendors or rejected local merchants take out their vengeance on the local superintendent by running for the board. Sometimes it is just basic business in the guise of "greasing the skids" and applies to markets as varied as fuel vendors and computer dealers.

While economics is sometimes a motivator, the usual catalyst is much more personal: either you, your brother, sister, son, daughter (fill in the blank) has been cheated, treated unfairly or abused by someone in authority, and you're going to run for the board and fire that person. The zeal of the would-be career assassins is usually wasted once they realize there are four or six other people on the board who don't share their opinion. A vote for this person is a wasted one because she rarely fulfills her elected obligations once she figures out her target gets to stay.

Sometimes it's a completely misguided view of what is actually happening at a school that gets someone to sign up for the campaign.

Another feature of local board elections is often the "group" candidate. Three or four candidates band together with a common public theme and it is always a call for change, even when change is obviously not necessary. Don't buy it. This process isn't about helping children, it is about unifying votes so personal agendas can be fulfilled. The damage done by these coalitions often takes decades to repair.

Often a two-word answer by a candidate at a public forum supplies all the answers a person needs. When asked what a district's biggest asset, most pressing concern or most important position is, the answer should always be "the children." Anything else reveals intent a person doesn't want guiding his child's education.

We had an administrator who despised athletics for a few years when I taught at Shoshoni. As we struggled through several down years, he said that sports didn't matter, we were an "academic school," and he didn't want the tail wagging the dog.

My friend Harold was quick to respond, "That dog is dead."

"If we played Lovell in English, they'd drill us in that too," was my comment. (Followed by yet another write-up.)

The point is that academics and athletics do not juxtapose each other, they augment each other.

Shoshoni's PAWS scores in math and reading were substantially lower during the school's losing football seasons from 2007-09 than in the last two years when the Wranglers went 5-3 and 6-2 and qualified for the playoffs. The data is easily available on the Wyoming Department of Education website, but it boils down to this: math averaged 63 percent proficient and reading tallied 85 percent and advanced at the 11th grade level when the Wranglers made the playoffs, but trailed off to only 51 percent in math and 62 percent in reading when they were losing every game.

The classical Greek adage of a strong mind in a strong body is universal.

To those who believe sports, and competition in general, is detrimental to children, I have a sobering thought for you. Life comes with a scoreboard, be it basketball, business or bread-making. Someone wins and someone loses.

You can get in the game by knowing your local candidates and voting for the children.

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