School-board race too unsettled to call

The Columbus Dispatch – October 26, 2013

It’s almost Election Day: Do you know who your Columbus Board of Education candidates are?

Nine out of 10 likely voters in the Columbus school district said the school board is at least partly responsible for the schools’ poor showing on state report cards.

Yet 72 percent of those same people didn’t know whom they would vote for in the school-board race, according to a poll Saperstein Associates conducted for The Dispatch.

Donald Preston, 61, who lives on the Northeast Side, said he has a problem putting the same people back on the school board. But when asked which of the six candidates he would vote for, he couldn’t say.

“If you inject funding into the same leadership that has been heading in the same direction, your chances of succeeding are much lower,” said Zach Bell, 22, who lives near Ohio State University. “I think the school-board race is important. I almost wonder if it wouldn’t be good to get people who are outside of the current situation.”

So who’s Bell voting for? He doesn’t know.

Voters hadn’t done their research yet, even though 45?percent of them have a negative impression of the current board, compared with 36 percent with a positive impression, said Martin D. Saperstein, president of Saperstein Associates. Twenty-two percent had a “very unfavorable” view of the board, compared with 10 percent who had a “very favorable” view, the poll shows.

While not paying much attention to the race, the voters overwhelmingly want to be able to vote for the school board rather than have its members appointed by a panel of city leaders. Only 14 percent of poll respondents approved of switching to an appointed board, while

78 percent favored an elected board. Eight percent didn’t know.

“Whenever you get appointments to things like this, you sometimes get into the ‘good old boy’ mentality,” said Wilma Wilson, 76, a former Columbus City Schools teacher who lives on the North Side. “A lot of times it’s their friends and who they know, which, by the way, is part of the problem with the (school-district) administration Downtown.”

The board race has kept a very low profile: Compared with almost $2.3 million spent through mid-October promoting a school levy, spending on all the board campaigns through Oct. 16 totaled just more than $25,000 — about

1 percent of what’s been spent on the levy push.

The poll results show it, Saperstein said.

“When you listen on the phone (during the survey), people just don’t know” about the board race, Saperstein said. “It’s just not surprising.”

Just about anything could happen on Election Day, given that every candidate’s poll numbers are so low. But here’s what the poll shows:

• Incumbent Ramona Reyes led the pack, with 111 poll respondents out of 803 picking her as their first, second or third choice. In field-race math, she’s getting 14 percent of the vote. That’s because in the poll, as in the election, each voter could pick up to three of the six candidates.

• Almost exactly tied with Reyes (by one poll respondent) is newcomer Michael Cole, also at 14 percent.

• Incumbent Hanifah Kambon came in third (11 percent).

• Kambon is followed by incumbent Mike Wiles and newcomer Dominic Paretti (each getting 8 percent) and newcomer Bev Corner (7 percent).

However, because the poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points, the distance between first and last place could be negligible.

Reyes, Cole, Kambon and Paretti are endorsed by the Franklin County Democrats. Wiles and Corner are endorsed by the county Republicans.

But with “I Don’t Know” getting 72 percent of the vote in the poll, the race is wide open, even though the school board and the district have been through a lot in the past 16 months.

The district is under federal and state investigation for rigging student data to make schools look better than they were. The former superintendent, to whom the board gave unprecedented decision-making power, retired after saying she was in the dark over the data-rigging scandal. Other high-ranking administrators linked to the scandal have resigned or retired.

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman decided the board needed his unsolicited help in doing its job, and the board has bent to the mayor’s will on more than one occasion.

The district received four F’s, three D’s and two C’s on its state report card. And a magistrate ordered the board to stop closing meetings with a private attorney to discuss the data-rigging case.

The Saperstein poll of 803 likely voters in the Columbus school district, via land lines and cellphones, was conducted from Oct. 7 through last Saturday. Results were slightly weighted to conform to known demographics. The response rate was 41 percent.