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Familiar issues, limited candidate turnout at first school board candidate forums

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The first candidate forums for next month’s Delaware’s upcoming school board elections took place this week - but not all districts are benefitting.

Only one of the three candidates in Milford’s race showed up for a Thursday night forum. In Smyrna, where four people are running for one at-large seat, no forum is planned.

Shannon Griffin, a senior policy advocate for the ACLU specializing in education, says many candidates simply didn’t respond to forum invitations, which her organization had a hand in organizing.

She argues at a time when public interest in school board races is increasing, the low candidate turnout for these events is concerning. "You owe it to the folks that you intend to serve for them to fully understand how you intend to govern," she said. "If you have strongly-held beliefs, you should be open about them if you're running for public office, whether you're on the left or right."

She added that many of the candidates who didn't participate have conservative views. Delaware Public Media has reached out to some of those candidates, including in Milford.

Though voter turnout for the races is typically low, Griffin says interest rose over the past two years and predicts that trend will continue.

When candidates are available, points of disagreement are familiar to those seen a year ago, including whether disparities in how Black students and students in special education programs are disciplined reflect systemic bias.

Jalyn Powell is running for an at-large seat on Milford’s school board. She advocates training for staff and teachers to combat bias. "Implicit bias exists everywhere," she told the small audience gathered on a Zoom meeting on Thursday evening. "I’m a strong believer in that.”

But Jim Casper, a candidate in Red Clay school district, argues the disparities only point to a pattern of misbehavior, not systemic bias. "What this statistic tells me is that generally speaking, Black, Brown and special education students are acting out and disregarding rules and procedures at a higher rate than their peers," he said. "That is not to suggest that there's no bias happening against these groups across the district, but to suggest it is a systemic problem requires much more evidence.... To suggest that there is some general bias that is punishing these students is removing all agency from the students, making them blameless and simply a helpless victim.”

Candidates also discussed the role of school resource officers, district spending and how students should learn about race in the classroom. Elections take place on May 10.

Learn more about upcoming school board candidate forums here.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.