People who were hoping for the resignation of Columbia Heights School Board Member Grant Nichols cheered when he stepped down last month amid allegations that he made an anti-Muslim comment.
But his resignation comes with a cost for the district: $15,000 to hold a special election in April to choose his replacement.
Never mind that Election Day was Tuesday. Some school districts will be asking voters to come to the polls again in the coming months, thanks to a new state law that requires open board seats with more than a year left in a member’s term to be filled by special election, not short-term appointment. About 20 school board vacancies statewide need to be filled and will cost districts $10,000 per election, on average, according to Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) spokesman Greg Abbott.
The association plans to ask the Legislature to repeal the law, which has been in effect since July, in the coming session.
The costs hit smaller districts like Columbia Heights particularly hard. In addition to the Nichols controversy, Columbia Heights has a second vacant seat, formerly occupied by Lori Meyer, who resigned in July. The special election primary to fill her seat is Dec. 1, and the special election is Jan. 26. All told, the district expects to spend $30,000 on the special elections.
“This is time and energy that’s being spent by the district,” said John Larkin, chairman of the Columbia Heights school board. “That time could be spent dealing with educational matters.”
The Eagle Valley School District in Clarissa, Minn., northwest of St. Cloud, has two vacant board seats and potentially a third coming because of board member resignations, said Superintendent Barry Johnson. The cost, time and energy in conducting these elections is making “kind of a perfect storm,” he said.
The new rules upended the practice of filling empty seats by appointment.
Previously, if a board member was serving a four-year term and quit within the first two years, an appointed replacement would fill that spot until a special election was held in conjunction with the next regular board election. If a member resigned in the last two years of the four-year term, there wouldn’t be a special election — just an appointment.
By piggybacking on regular elections, Abbott said, the districts didn’t have to pay as much to hold a special election.
But the new rules require special elections when vacancies arise. The exception? If a board member vacates a seat with less than a year left in his or her term, then a replacement member can be appointed, as long as there’s a public hearing and public officials are notified of the appointment.
Otherwise, a special election is necessary at least 120 days after the vacancy arises.
“There’s a lot of people — a lot of taxpayers — who are not getting representation for up to nine months,” Abbott said.
Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, chief author of the legislation outlining the new rules, did not return calls for comment.
Abbott said the change came about because a few members of school boards who felt they were constantly in the minority saw the appointment process as an unfair advantage, allowing the majority to add others who agreed with them.
Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, chairman of the education committee, said he didn’t remember much opposition to the change. But given the unexpected number of people who don’t serve a full term and the cost impact, he said the Legislature should revisit it.
“It would be advisable for us to reconsider and have this conversation,” he said.