This may be the election we were looking for: issue-driven, non-partisan and, above all, civil.
"There are some great candidates out there, and this is a pretty different kind of race, isn't it?" asked Dave Wagers, president of Idaho Candy Company and the only Boise School Board incumbent running for re-election. "I've got nothing bad to say about my opponents."
For the record, neither did candidates Beth Oppenheimer and Monica Walker.
Not that there isn't plenty at stake. For starters, more than 26,000 students are beginning another school year. The Boise School District employs more than 4,300 people and the district's 2016-2017 budget is $214.3 million. Though there are 103,799 registered voters in the Boise School District, school board elections have seen abysmally low voter turnout. In 2014, about 6 percent of voters went to the polls. The previous two elections saw 1.5 and 1.1 percent turnout.
And it's a odd school-board election day: Tuesday, Sept. 6, which is the day after Labor Day, voters will be asked to cast a ballot at one of 30 elementary schools, eight junior high schools, four high schools or the district's administrative offices (8169 W. Victory Road).
Wagers, appointed to the board in January 2015 to serve the remaining 20 months of outgoing board member Joan Boren's term, has three children in schools this fall and a fourth, a recent graduate from Boise High, is in college.
"I'm Boise through-and-through. My mom even taught in the Boise School District," Wagers said. "It's all about improving our community one kid at a time."
Oppenheimer also has strong ties to Boise and education, and she has one of the most recognizable names in the Treasure Valley.
"But my husband and I are often confused with the other Oppenheimers" she said, referring to the family behind the Boise-based Oppenheimer Companies, Inc. "We joke that we're the nonprofit Oppenheimers."
Oppenheimer is executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children and her husband is government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League. Their youngest daughter begins fourth grade this fall at Liberty Elementary and their oldest daughter is going into ninth grade at East Junior High.
"I figured that this is the time for me to do this. I'm already so heavily involved in education," said Oppenheimer. "I've never run for office before, but this is a great time for me to lend my voice, skills and talents to support the school district any way I can."
Walker has two daughters about to start a new school year. Her oldest, a junior at Temple University, went to Boise High and her youngest daughter will be a junior there this fall.
"I'm usually behind the scenes when it comes to elections," said Walker. "My husband Jim is a Boise firefighter and is a PAC chairman for the firefighters' union. I'm sure that hard work for other candidates has taught me well. I'm proud to say that we're a union household, and I'm doubly proud to say that the Boise Education Association [the Boise teachers union] gave me their endorsement." (The BEA also endorsed Wagers.)
On the 'Don't Fail Idaho' Controversy
If voters are looking for something to spice up the race for Boise School Board this year, they need look no further than the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation's provocative television ads, dubbed "Don't Fail Idaho," which suggest Idaho students aren't up to the challenge of higher education.
In February, the Boise School Board, in an unprecedented op-ed and letter to district staff, wrote it, "would not sit back and allow our teachers to be devalued." The board condemned the Albertson Foundation for what it called "an agenda designed to undermine public schools."
Don't expect this year's school board candidates to disagree with the criticism. Wagers added his name to the letter and Oppenheimer and Walker said they would have, too, if they had been school board members.
"I applaud the Boise School District for stepping up and saying something," said Oppenheimer. "There are a lot of folks cautious about speaking out against the Albertson Foundation. I don't know if the intention of the 'Don't Fail Idaho' campaign was to diminish the value of our educators but, unfortunately, there were consequences from that campaign that continue today."
Walker said at first she was a bit surprised at the harshness of the letter from the school board, but ultimately agreed with its message.
"Yes, I would have signed that," she said. "The board has to be a team. The Albertson Foundation is extremely well-intentioned, but there has to be a way to understand this issue better."
Wagers didn't mince words.
"It doesn't help with a negative campaign like 'Don't Fail Idaho.' It may get people's attention to say that the system is broken and people don't care, but that only discourages people," he said. "Look, the Albertson Foundation is all about driving innovation, and the Boise School District isn't opposed to that at all, but we choose to do it in a positive manner and that ad campaign takes away from that."
On Boise's Commitment to Pre-K
Idaho is one of a handful of states without any state-funded preschool, so the Boise School District partnered with the city of Boise and a number of Idaho businesses for a pilot pre-kindergarten program at two Vista neighborhood elementary schools. Funding for the program, which is about to begin its second year, was only secured for three years. All three school board candidates would like to see a permanent, expanded pre-K program.
"We can't guarantee that we're going to have the same school board, the same mayor or city council down the road. We've got to make sure that the funding is stable and secure before we do anything else," said Oppenheimer. "Here's what has to happen: Local communities have to put more pressure on state legislators for statewide funding of pre-K."
Walker said the pilot program would be welcomed with open arms in other Boise neighborhoods.
"I know if it were offered elsewhere, a lot of people would take advantage of it," she said. "The Boise School District is really leading the pack on this issue."
Wagers believes Boise is in a unique position to support pre-K.
"Quite frankly, Boise has better funding that a lot of other Idaho districts," he said. "We need to lead the state. That's why I've pushed our board to be a greater part of the Idaho School Board Association."
Wagers will first have to meet the electoral challenge of Oppenheimer and Walker.
"My opponents are pretty great ladies, and they want to help kids as much as I do," Wagers said. "You'll never hear me say anything negative about them."