By Adam Pagnucco.
This week, MoCo’s school board candidates reported their campaign finances through August 18. The results for the cycle are below. Here’s a three-word summary: they’re all broke.
Let’s put this in perspective. In 2018, seven candidates for county council at-large raised $200,000 or more to communicate with a Democratic primary electorate which ultimately totaled 134,212 voters. That means they had $1.50 or more per voter.
This year, 272,697 people of all parties voted in the MoCo primary. That was the universe of folks with whom school board candidates had to communicate. But unlike council at-large candidates, school board candidates who win primaries also have competitive general elections. In 2016 (the last presidential year), 483,429 people voted in MoCo’s general election. This year, it will be well over 500,000 voters. If the leading school board fundraiser, at-large candidate Sunil Dasgupta, is able to raise $50,000 this cycle – a very big if! – he would effectively have 6 cents per voter counting both the primary and the general.
It’s basically impossible to run an effective campaign with that little money available for that many voters.
School board races take a back seat to gubernatorial, state legislative and county races in mid-term years, to presidential races in presidential years and to congressional races in all years. The result is that candidates can’t run real races and the outcomes are driven by factors like incumbency, the Apple Ballot and the Washington Post endorsement. Holders of all three of those advantages win MoCo school board races more than 90% of the time. Hardly anyone knows these candidates at election time but the ones who win go on to oversee a $2.8 billion school system.
Public financing has pluses and minuses and we learned a lot about it in 2018. But let’s be clear. Because of the presence of other more attention-getting (and much better funded) races on the ballot, school board candidates will probably never be able to raise adequate money in the traditional system, particularly since all of them (even the district members) are elected at large. Without change, they will continue to be heavily reliant on influential endorsements and even the alphabet(!) to get elected.
And so, if we are going to have public financing for county executive and county council elections, we should definitely have it available for school board.