Column: Replacing school board chairwoman doesn’t have to be complicated

There’s no foolproof solution, but when you weigh the pros and cons, there’s a clear choice.

The Bloomington Board of Education is discussing how it will go about filling the seat of Melissa Havlorson Wiklund, the board chairwoman who gets to sit and watch the philosophic volleyball as it is batted back and forth amongst her six colleagues. Wiklund hasn’t resigned yet, but she will be doing so in the days ahead. Her next stop: the Minnesota Senate.

With a year remaining in Wiklund’s term, it is up to the board to appoint her replacement for that final year, and it will do so by a majority vote. Wiklund doesn’t get to choose her successor – the vote won’t take place until after she steps down – but it will still require four votes to fill her seat.

Who the board chooses, and how it will choose that person, remains unknown. The board is leaning toward an application and interview process in selecting Wiklund’s replacement. There are certainly merits to that process, but it’s not without its drawbacks, too.

The board is entrusted by Bloomington voters to make hundreds of decisions per year, including decisions on a variety of complex issues with significant financial ramifications. Seven people make those decisions. Certainly six of them can be trusted to choose one community member to join them in making those decisions in the next year.

When I think of the board/council vacancies I have witnessed over the years, I often think back to a five-member council that was presented with the challenge.

This particular council could easily be grouped into two factions. We’ll call them the Hatfields and McCoys. The Hatfields had a 3-2 advantage, and it was a McCoy that resigned. What do you think the odds were that a McCoy was going to be chosen as the replacement?

That doesn’t make the selection of a fourth Hatfield wrong, but it gave the fourth Hatfield an advantage when the next election season rolled around. Hatfield No. 4 was a de facto incumbent.

Like it or not, name recognition carries weight when it comes to election season. Even if that name recognition is worth little on Election Day, being a de facto incumbent gives you an advantage over your challengers when hitting the campaign trail, be it at a voter’s doorstep or a candidate forum.

It doesn’t matter if you can divide the Bloomington board into factions or view them as one harmonious school choir, should six people – no matter how pure their intentions – be allowed to bless one Bloomington resident with the gift of de facto incumbency?

If that’s what it takes to fill Wiklund’s seat, so be it. But there’s a better solution, and one that was seldom mentioned during last week’s board meeting: appoint a former board member.

You can’t guarantee a former board member won’t parlay a one-year cameo in the boardroom into a second stint in office, but a former board member has name recognition regardless of whether he or she is appointed to fill Wiklund’s seat, so it’s not the same as granting de facto incumbency.

More important, you gain a board member who knows the ways and means of the district, and shouldn’t need much time to get up to speed. There’s no crime in the board making decisions with only six members in the weeks to come, but appointing a former board member provides an immediate voice of experience to the discussion.

The board is welcome to conduct as lengthy and as thorough of a process as it desires in choosing Wiklund’s successor, but in the end it’s a one-year decision. The longer the process, the less benefit the board derives from its appointment.

A suburban school district faced with a similar situation several years ago opted for an application and interview process to fill its vacancy. There were challengers for board seats during the previous election, but there had been a dearth of candidates in prior elections. When the appointment became available, 15 people applied to fill the seat.

Remember the recent Bloomington City Council vacancy? There were eight applicants for that six-month gig.

It’s no secret why.

I have never run for elected office, and never will, but I’ve seen enough campaigns at the local level to know it’s a lot of work. And somebody has to pay for those glossy brochures and colorful lawn signs that are so important to just about every campaign in Minnesota.

When you take away the candidate forums, door knocking and promotional expenses of a campaign, and substitute an application and 30-minute interview during an open meeting, an elected position suddenly looks far more appealing.

Does the appointment process invalidate the work a future board member will do? Of course not. Is it wrong to award the board seat to a resident via the application and interview process? No, especially if there’s no better option.

But there is a better option in this case. I called former Boardmember Jim Sorum and asked him if he’d be willing to serve for a year. He said he would, and he favors the concept for the same reasons I do.

Yes, Sorum could apply, interview and be chosen, but the board is not obligated to carry out such a process. The board could nominate and approve any qualified resident without so much as a two-word discussion, should it so desire.

Rather than spend time interviewing candidates in January and appointing an inexperienced resident to the board sometime after that – for what could be less than one year of service – the board could have a 21-year veteran ready to go at its Jan. 14 meeting.

Yes, you have to get four Hatfields or McCoys to approve Sorum’s appointment, but it would be hard to criticize the appointment of any longtime board member that has won the public’s approval on more than one occasion.

Whether it is Sorum or another former board member, the board could save a lot of time and debate by putting a quick end to the discussion on Dec. 10. It makes too much sense not to.