Living in Society

School Board Campaign Conventions

Conventional wisdom in the Solon Community School District board election is there is a certain way of doing things. Call it a “Solon way” if you need a name for it.

From the filing deadline on Sept. 16 until election day on Nov. 2 there is not a lot of time. Candidates have to contact voters in a way that convinces about 500 of them they are the best person for the school board.

For the most part, conventional campaigns go something like this:

  • Planning, including finance and yard signs.
  • Strategy, including web presence, alliances with other candidates.
  • Filing.
  • Voter outreach via personal networking, U.S. Postal Service, in-person, and internet.
  • Submit information to organizations via questionnaire: League of Women Voters, Solon Economist, and others.
  • One large candidate forum, this year on Oct. 20.
  • Get out the vote.

There is an economy to conventional wisdom in that energy can be focused on a limited number of tasks. If one performs them all well, they have their best foot forward. If they don’t win, they can say they did their best and garner some satisfaction for having run.

Being on the school board doesn’t come with financial consideration, i.e. no pay. Most candidates have lives filled with work that needs doing to support themselves. There is not a lot of time for nuance in a campaign. Conventional wisdom supports busy people in that campaigns run by it have a well-worn path to conclusion, if not to winning.

Because of conventional wisdom, it is difficult for a candidate to break out from the herd. This year there are seven candidates, Billerbeck, Brown, Coons, Edmonds, Neuerburg, Munson and Rochholz. Brown and Coons are incumbents, each of whom was elected multiple times. The opening for a non-incumbent was created when Rick Jedlicka decided not to run for another term. In a calcified school board election environment, the competition would be for that one seat, assuming Brown and Coons would dominate because of their incumbency. It doesn’t have to be that way.

As I do the work to understand the seven 2021 candidates, I reflect on the campaign of Jami Wolf, who I view as a breakout candidate among six who ran for two seats in 2019. More than others, she devoted time and resources to networking throughout the community. She had a natural connection with school board election voters in that she volunteered at the school. She is outgoing and friendly. Her career in real estate reinforces qualities needed in a campaign: realism, public speaking, and poise. She was open to meeting with almost anyone. While she had a Facebook page, it appeared to me her focus was on person-to-person contact. She won the open seat on the board.

Who will be the breakout candidate in 2021? I don’t know. What worked for Wolf may not work for candidates with a different personality style. Effective voter outreach will make the difference on Nov. 2.

A lot has been made of the district’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic. Little in conventional wisdom about campaigns covers a public health crisis during a pandemic. Some like what the school administration has done. Others do not. It seems unlikely that the single issue of number of instances of COVID-19, managing outbreaks, and communication about COVID-19 cases in the schools will be the deciding factor in this election. Cassie Rochholz and Erika Billerbeck were quoted by KCRG on Sept. 29 in reaction to the district experiencing 67 positive COVID-19 cases in a single week. Their comments typify the division around the pandemic:

Some parents in the school district think the rapid increase in cases is a direct result of not requiring masks for students or staff.

“That’s in a population of about 1,500 students. And when you compare it to a system like Iowa City where they are requiring masks, right now I believe they have 36 active cases in a school system that’s 9 times the size of Solon,” Erika Billerbeck, a school district parent, said.

Billerbeck said, at the very least, she wants better communication from the school.

“I won’t find out until Monday evening what the statistics were for the previous week,” Billerbeck said. “So as a parent trying to make a decision day-to-day, we’re not receiving that information to make a good choice for our kids.”

Other parents, like Cassie Rochholz, say families and students should have a choice when it comes to mask-wearing.

“Parents need the option to choose what is best for their child, and no child fits squarely into a box, no child is the same as one another,” Rochholz said.

KCRG website Sept. 29, 2021.

It is not hard to line up the candidates for and against administration policy and its practice regarding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

If conventional wisdom makes it easier to manage a campaign, it does not assure winning. Innovative strategies and effective outreach to voters beyond one’s personal circle will be what decides the election. If the electorate is of a mood to replace the current board, three newcomers could win. We’ll see the mood of the electorate in the coming four weeks.

Click here for all of my coverage of the Solon School Board Election.