Reflections on the August 2016 School Board Elections

District 2 – Stephanie Lucarelli
District 4 – Erick Carter

In the August School Board elections, Stephanie Lucarelli, District 2, and Erick Carter for District 4, won by double-digit margins: Lucarelli with 59.3 percent of the votes to Louise Penta’s 40.7 percent; Carter with 57.2 percent to Lee Dixon’s 42.8 percent.
See Table 1.

Table 1: School Board election results

That’s the big picture. In this post, I’ll dig into the numbers. Then I’ll compare the results to the election of August 2014, from which followed almost two years of frequently-contentious School Board meetings with lengthy and often uncivil public comments that ultimately brought us to where we are today. I’ll close with some personal reflections.

The numbers

It’s disappointing that fewer than one in three – 32.4 percent – registered voters participated in Collier County’s primary elections, although it beats the ~28 percent turnout in the 2012 primary. (Turnout in presidential election years is usually higher than for mid-term elections; in the 2014 primaries, turnout was just 21 percent.) Almost 62,000 ballots were cast. See Table 2.

Table 2: August 2016 voter turnout by party affiliation

Turnout varied considerably by party affiliation. See Table 2. Since many of the races were open to registered Republicans only, perhaps this was to be expected. But the very important School Board, Clerk of Courts and Property Appraiser races were open to all, as was the vote on state Constitutional Amendment 4, and Republicans represented a far greater percent of ballots cast (69 percent) than they did of eligible voters (52 percent). I am disappointed that so few Democrats chose to participate, though I understand they might resent being disenfranchised by the phony write-in candidate loophole I wrote about here.

The disproportionate participation of Republicans, combined with the Republican Executive Committee’s controversial endorsement of Penta and Dixon, make Lucarelli’s and Carter’s wins even more impressive. (See Collier GOP to regroup after School Board loss.)

Importantly, the trend toward convenience voting continued. Only 26 percent of those who voted waited until Election Day, and more than half voted by mail. See Table 3.

Table 3: Ballots cast

This “new normal” must be taken into consideration in the future by candidates and their campaigns, as well as by local organizations planing candidate forums and the newspapers and others that publish endorsements. The vast majority of voters make up their minds much earlier than they used to, so much of the money and energy spent on advertising and campaigning in the two weeks before Election Day may in the future be better spent differently.

As is usually the case, not everyone voted on every race or question on her/his ballot. The under-vote in the two School Board races averaged 11.3 percent, meaning about one in nine people who cast a ballot didn’t participate in those particular races. This a significant improvement over 2014, as I discuss below.

What a difference two years makes!

In 2014, I was dismayed by the low voter turnout in the primaries. Only 21 percent of the County’s registered voters voted, meaning four out of five did not. Democrats’ participation was far worse than Republicans’ (18 percent vs. 27 percent turnout). And as bad as that was, the under-votes were even worse. See Table 4.

Table 4: 2016 vs 2014 turnout comparison

The low turnout and significant under-votes combined with the fact that there were three candidates running for the District 1 seat enabled Kelly Lichter to be elected with a paltry 16,760 votes. While this was 51.4 percent of votes cast, it was just nine percent of all registered voters. See Table 5.

Table 5: 2016 vs 2014 Primary winners comparison

Two years later, voter turnout among both Republicans and Democrats increased by more than 50 percent, and the percent of under-votes in the School Board races dropped by almost 30 percent. See Table 4. As a result, unlike 2014 when the Board members elected in August received fewer than 18,000 votes each, this year, each winner received more than 30,000 votes. Far more people were engaged and cared enough to participate this year. See Table 5. These are excellent trends that I hope will continue.

I don’t believe the fact that it’s a presidential election year fully explains the higher voter participation. I hope my almost exclusive focus on the School Board in this blog over the past two years raised awareness of what was at stake. See, for example, my report on the first post–2014-election School Board meeting, in which I expressed dismay and concern about the tone of several of the interactions between Board members, members of the audience, the Board attorney and the Superintendent.

In addition, the Naples Daily News’s coverage of the School Board over the past two years and of the School Board election campaigns over the past several months must have played a big part. Looking back over the articles, editorials and letters to the editor I clipped, I can’t help but think that they too got the public’s attention. For example, in the months and weeks leading up to Election Day, the NDN:

  • reported on PACs created to support Lucarelli and Carter (here) and Penta and Dixon (here);
  • highlighted the increasingly partisan nature of what are supposed to be nonpartisan School Board elections (here);
  • hosted forums for the School Board candidates, live-blogged and tweeted highlights, and subsequently posted the video online (here); and
  • reported on “discrepancies” in how candidate Lee Dixon “characterized his time” at the University of Miami (here).

Separately, the Naples Daily News Editorial Board endorsed Stephanie Lucarelli (here) and Erick Carter (here) in their respective races, highlighting not only the experiences and character traits the two will bring to the Board but also the key issues at stake. Since some people vote based on the Naples Daily News endorsements, this too affected the results.

Another major difference in this election was the significant grassroots effort that formed and then evolved over the past year or so as parents, teachers and community members became aware of the issues. Social media played a huge role in growing the grassroots movement, engaging and connecting concerned voters and sharing information. Facebook was the venue-of-choice: if you weren’t following Collier County School Board Watch, Great Schools, Great Minds, The Coalition for Quality Public Education (C4QPE) and my own Sparker’s Soapbox Facebook Page, you missed out on much important activity.

Word-of-mouth, email chains and house parties were also extremely effective. People who had never done anything like it before were happy to help, reaching friends and neighbors who would have not been contacted otherwise.
Finally, the candidates themselves were tireless in their efforts: candidate forums, meet-and-greets, petition-gathering, parades, knocking on doors — I don’t know where they found the energy to do it all.

The Naples Daily News Editorial Board called the margin of victory in the School Board races “a statement of significant community support for Superintendent Kamela Patton,” and dedicated a post-election editorial to a call for civility, saying:

“We interpret Tuesday’s election results as voters sending a message that they’re weary of combative leadership. If that’s the message, we concur. Tuesday’s victories by Erick Carter and Stephanie Lucarelli … create an opportunity for a fresh commitment to civil, not uncivil, service when they’re sworn into office this fall.”

Some personal reflections

The divisiveness surrounding this election goes back at least three years. One of the first signs that caught my attention was the angry, belligerent and (I believe) staged responses from some members of the public at a May 2013 School District information session about Florida’s Common Core State Standards. See Common Core: An Issue for the School Board Elections?.

Another early sign was the Contract with Collier County, Florida that the 2014 School Board candidates were asked to sign. Weeks before that year’s August elections, a local parent/attorney emailed supporters:

If, on August 26, we elect candidates from each of the three Districts who have signed the “Contract with Collier County,” voters will have a Board majority that can return a voice to parents and teachers, protect our students, and improve the quality of our local educational system.

See SWFL Citizens Alliance wants control of the School Board.

Not gaining the majority they sought, supporters of the two then-newly-elected Board members took every opportunity over the following two years to insult the Superintendent and challenge and disparage the Board majority, especially the then-Chair. Some of the issues they raised had to do with:

  • the role of federal, state and local government in public education;
  • the role of parents and community members in the selection of instructional materials, curriculum and pedagogical methods;
  • how comparative religion is taught in the schools;
  • the appropriateness of holding co-curricular events in a church; and
  • the appropriateness of a prayer or invocation before School Board meetings.

These matters, about which people hold strong and differing opinions, merit community discussion and consideration, and I respect their right to bring them before the School Board. What concerned me, and still does, is the lack of civility with which some officials on the dais were addressed, the lack of respect for the views of others and, in some cases, for the law, and the unwillingness to accept, after appropriate Board consideration, the vote of the majority.

I think the higher voter participation and ultimately the elections of Lucarelli and Carter were more about the community’s determination that this uncivil behavior not prevail than about the candidates’ views on the ideological issues. The community understood the need for stability in District administration and in school leadership, and feared the loss of an excellent Superintendent and the changes that might bring.

People were also angry about the encroachment of partisan politics into what should be nonpartisan school board governance. Such encroachment received public attention just over a year ago when the Collier County Republican Executive Committee considered censuring the School Board Chair for not being “Republican enough,” and culminated with the CCREC’s endorsement, for the first time in at least a decade, of candidates in the nonpartisan School Board races. The fact that the then-CCREC Chairman was not reelected is surely further evidence of community dissatisfaction.

I fervently hope that the candidates who lost and their supporters, as well as the continuing School Board members, will take the lessons of this election to heart. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

In two short years, there will be another School Board election, and three of the five seats will be on the ballot. I hope to see change. I intend to remain vigilant. I hope you will, too.

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