ATLANTA — The Echols County school district is small, with 850 students in rural south Georgia. Even so, John Corbett, R-Lake Park, a freshman state representative, was warned by other lawmakers that he would face stiff resistance should he try to rid the school board of its political affiliations.
The warning proved prescient. Forty-six legislators — most of them representing areas outside of south Georgia — voted against Corbett’s bill, filed on behalf of the local school board. That’s about the same number who voted against Gov. Nathan Deal’s education reform proposal — one of this session’s most hotly debated issues.
“If a board has the ability to spend money and make fiscal decisions, I want it to be partisan,” said Rep. Steve Tarvin, a Republican who hails from Chickamauga in north Georgia.
Rare are the public officials who run for office without a “D” or “R” next to their name. State law limits which offices can be nonpartisan. At the local level, judges and school boards can be filled by candidates who are politically undeclared, with approval from the General Assembly.
Even though Corbett’s bill passed, many in the Legislature, like Tarvin, reflexively oppose the idea of turning partisan races into apolitical contests. Proposals to depoliticize other offices — like sheriff and coroner — have fallen flat over the years.
There are a few different motivations for going nonpartisan, said Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. For one, as Echols County school officials argued, some offices are inherently apolitical.
Nonpartisan elections might also hold appeal for a community going through a political transition — or to members of a minority party who feel their label is holding them back.
But casting off the partisanship can be far less advantageous for the majority party.
“It may be that the dominant party is reluctant to make it nonpartisan, realizing that if you remove the party label then some people who are strongly affiliated with the opposition will manage to get elected because they won’t have to swim against that tide,” Bullock said.
“The majority party people might say, ‘No, we want to keep these for ourselves,’” he said.
Tarvin said political labels are important to him because Republicans tend to be more conservative with taxpayer dollars. He said his vote against Corbett’s proposal was nothing against Echols County. He votes against all bills making school boards nonpartisan.
Another dissenter, Rep. Mark Hamilton, a Republican from Cumming, just north of Atlanta, noted the importance of knowing someone’s ideology in an increasingly partisan climate.
Proponents of nonpartisan school boards say that don’t see a connection between party politics and the business of educating children.
“Students aren’t Democrats or Republicans,” said Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association. Palm said the group supports all boards switching to nonpartisan.
The number of school boards with members who claim a political party is slowly shrinking. About 45 percent of the state’s school systems have partisan boards. Among the largest, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton, hold partisan school board elections, while those in DeKalb, Fulton and the city of Atlanta are nonpartisan.
Lamar County, northwest of Macon, also has a bill pending to depoliticize its school board.
In Thomasville, cutting out the partisan politics — and even pay for board members — has helped the system attract people who are focused on public education, said John Everett, chairman of the Thomasville City School Board. The board has been nonpartisan for years.
“The elected members vote what they truly feel to be in the best interests of the system without political connotations,” he said.
In Echols County, board members already think that way, Corbett said. The closely knit community, which has about 4,000 residents, is the kind of place where people know each other, and family ties are common.
Corbett, for example, has a nephew on the school board and Corbett’s wife works in the school district’s central office. Corbett even served on the school board for 12 years before becoming a state legislator.
Board members rarely face opposition, and no one could remember the last time members wrangled with a politically charged issue. So much that not everyone knows the other’s political affiliation.
“I couldn’t tell you, out of the five, which ones are what,” said Tim Ragan, Echols County’s school superintendent. “We just take that out of the equation.”
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said most of his members, if given a choice, would likely prefer running in nonpartisan races.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and we’ve been talking about that the entire time I’ve been here,” Norris said.
But it’s unlikely they’ll have that choice anytime soon.
Jill Nolin covers the Statehouse for CNHI’s Georgia newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.