My grandfather ran for the prestigious position of school board director in 1946 for Independent School District No. 35 – otherwise known as the Buhl-Kinney Board of Education.
It was reported that 1,080 voters cast their ballots in that election, and, in the end, he received the most votes (492). According to a newspaper story in the Buhl Herald, his victory set him up to earn a “lushy $1,800 three-year term.”
The idea that $1,800 is “lushy” seems a little absurd today but a quick Google search shows that after adjusting for inflation, that amount of money in 1946 is equal to the buying power of $25,761 in 2021.
He hit the jackpot, I suppose, considering the price of things then.
A gallon of gas was only 21 cents back then if a person was lucky enough to own a vehicle but considering the average price of a car or truck was $1,125, a school board director salary was a good way to save up for one.
You could also get a gallon of milk for 67 cents and a loaf of bread for 10 cents.
Today that kind of dough doesn’t go as far. In fact, $1,800 in 2021 is about five trips to the grocery store for a family of six. Interestingly, city council members and school board directors from small towns across the country still get paid about the same as they did in 1946. Maybe a little more, but not much more.
I know, I’ve been both.
Not exactly life changing cash, but for most people (myself included) who run for public office in a small town or rural area, particularly school boards or city councils, it’s not about the money.
The majority just want to make a positive difference in their community even though they know going in that it is a thankless, stressful job – particularly at the local level where every vote and decision usually effects the entire population of a town or school district where everybody knows everybody.
After a vote on a tough issue, local board and council members will find themselves face-to-face with friends, neighbors, and even family members who may have a stake in the outcome and might not be too happy.
They will go out to eat at the same restaurants, share the same pews at church on Sunday, and sit shoulder-to-shoulder at local sporting events.
It’s not like representing a constituency from a distance – say like St. Paul or Washington D.C.
While state and federal level representatives certainly get their fair share of angry responses to votes or stands on issues, they are generally only reachable via email or phone most of the time. By the time Sen. Big Shot shows up for his or her annual hand shaking parade appearance, whatever got a constituent’s blood boiling is probably a distant memory.
What’s interesting about this dynamic is while the average salary for a U.S. Senator is $174,000 a year and the average stipend for a small-town city councilor or school board director is closer to maybe $3,000 a year (remember, we aren’t talking Minneapolis here), the decisions made locally have a much more direct impact on the daily lives of the voters who put them in office.
For example, operating levies set by councils and school boards directly affect property taxes. A congressman in Washington D.C. doesn’t really care if your sidewalks are useable, your roads are drivable or if your school is maintained.
And while many important government services like police and fire, education and health, and libraries receive federal money to help offset operation costs, it’s local taxes that mostly fund those things and it is your city councilors and school board members who decide their fates.
Those are big-ticket decisions made by elected representatives who are basically volunteering their time, particularly the mom-and-pop types found in local city halls or board rooms every other Monday.
Their proximity to the voters means they quickly learn you can’t please everyone all the time and everybody takes everything personally. Sometimes you can’t please anyone and most of the time when you think you are doing the right thing, everyone and their mother will let you know you aren’t.
They also learn quick that the smallest issues usually get blown out of proportion, and the largest issues become so confusing you don’t know where the discussion even began, let alone where it might end.
It leads to some sleepless nights and self-doubt as to why you even signed up for the job in the first place.
Social media doesn’t help, of course. The creation of things like Facebook and the various group pages dedicated to certain cities, communities, and school districts, has only made it easier for people to complain about everything without having to actual get involved in anything.
Is it any wonder fewer and fewer folks are choosing not to run for local offices? During a recent election cycle, the Star Tribune reported that 60 percent of all local offices in Minnesota had only a single candidate running unopposed and that in all, two-thirds of local offices had either no candidate running or one.
A lot of experts point to a few reasons for this – from no time in modern society to dedicate, to the low pay, to the lack of big-ticket issues that would motivate people to put their name on the ballot.
It’s probably a combination of all those things and more.
Still, the lack of interest in local politics is concerning. It makes you wonder where our future leaders are going to come from.