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County board, by nature, is more volatile

Looking at this week’s primary results in local races, it appears to be a good year for incumbents — if you’re on the Baker County School Board.

For the Baker County Commission, not so much.

Both Dwight Crews of Sanderson, a seven-term incumbent, and Patricia Weeks of Glen St. Mary, who has been on the school board 20 years, easily won new terms on Tuesday in a primary that brought out 36 percent of the county’s registered voters.

Michael Crews, on the county commission a single term, was ousted by James Croft, himself once a one-term commissioner defeated for a second ride in the 1980s.

Before Tuesday, there was a lot of buzz suggesting that 2012 is rife with anti-incumbent sentiment. People are fed up with government, with career politicians, with wasteful spending, with government that doesn’t seem to respond to the people.

 

Some of that is fueled from the top, from Washington (now a synonym for “frustration”) and on the state level with cutbacks in areas that affect the local constituency like corrections officers.

What is perhaps more clear with Tuesday’s election on the local level is that being a county commissioner is a far more potentially volatile post than being a school board member.

Commissioners, after all, have to deal with matters like human waste incinerators, re-zoning for sand mines, dirt roads, tax millages, added fees for emergency and fire services, etc.

The irony, as it applies to holding local office, is that as important as local schools are to a county’s welfare, and as closely watched as they are by most parents, most people are aware that key decisions in school operations are no longer made here, locally.

Before the letters to the editor come flowing in, don’t take that to mean school board membership doesn’t require knowledge of the system and a keen ear for local sentiment.

It simply means that county commissioners have more direct control over what direction Baker County takes, both in the immediate and distant future.

Put another way, does a county commissioner have a more direct say on whether sand mining is allowed in Baker County than a school board member has on the outcome of FCAT testing?

Are constituents passionate about both issues — you bet.

The difference is it’s more difficult to club an incumbent school board member over the head with the FCAT cudgel.

We saw this in this fall’s primary.

Challengers Andy Johnston and Clay Griffis went after Mrs. Weeks and Mr. Crews on FCAT scoring.

Why is the county scoring below others in this region? How come Union County is an “A” district but Baker County, also a small, rural school district, does not?

If anti-incumbent sentiment was stronger, perhaps those questions could have spelled the end of the incumbents’ careers.

Voters seem to sense that, first, deciphering the entrails of the FCAT test scoring tries the patience of the most tolerant among us. They also know that Baker County is an overall “C” district based on scoring and that could improve with the release of the high school grade.

And on a day-to-day basis, voters know that school board members have little say in the vast majority of decisions made at the twice-monthly meetings.

Challengers both in 2010 and this year complained the school board is a “rubber stamp” for the administration, and promised if elected to change that.

Really?

The two candidates who won two years ago (one of them unseating an incumbent largely because voters didn’t like it that he was the father of the school superintendent) are now full-fledged letters on that rubber stamp.

The reason? Most of what the school board does is required by Tallahassee, and when “You pay-a da bills, you make-a da rules.”

It’s a system that has steadily evolved over the past 60-70 years as local school district funding of budgets diminished  and was overtaken by the influx of state and federal money. And that’s the way it’s going to stay.

Again, this isn’t an argument against the value of local school boards, or the need for qualified and dedicated people to serve on them. It’s simply the reality.

So, we still have two county commission races remaining in the general election in November. Will the sentiment that ousted Mr. Crews carry over to Gordon Crews and Mark Hartley? Or was Mr. Crews’ defeat more linked to his style and positions rather than the “anti-incumbency” movement?

We’ll know in November.

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