School board race revives call for term limits

(Daily Pilot)

Term limits are far from a new idea.

They have roots in Ancient Greece and Rome. Members of the first United States Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, were subject to term limits.

Concerned that some delegates were violating those restrictions, Congress convened a committee to determine “whether any members were tarrying beyond their appointed terms.”

Term limits remain a continuing source of debate and controversy throughout the nation, and efforts to make them more widespread have been fitful.

The issue of term limits is now a flashpoint in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where a trio of new candidates for three contested school board seats have joined in an effort to restrict trustees to three terms, for a total of 12 years.

In 1990, voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma passed ballot measures imposing term limits on their state representatives, followed two years later by 10 more states enacting similar restrictions.

Since then, efforts to broaden their adoption have been inconsistent at best, and there have been some brakes put on their use. In the 1995 case U.S. Term Limits Inc. vs. Thornton, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states cannot set term limits for their congressional representatives.

Now Newport-Mesa Unified school board candidates Amy Peters, Leslie Bubb and Michael Schwarzmann — who are running for the seats currently held by Martha Fluor, Vicki Snell and board President Dana Black — have called on the board to place a term-limit measure on the November ballot. At a meeting in July, the board decided to delay any discussion on the issue until after the election, when new terms begin in January.

Despite their popularity with voters, when it comes to school boards, term limits are exceedingly rare.

In an unusual move, Louisiana voters in 2012 approved such limits for all of that state’s school boards. Here in California, voters in Orange overwhelmingly passed school-board term limits in June, and this November Simi Valley residents will decide whether to adopt term limits for its school board trustees. Yet they remain in a small minority. Newport-Mesa neighbors, such as Irvine Unified, Laguna Beach Unified and Huntington City School District, have no such limits.

As is usually the case with term-limits movements, the local push is a product of understandable frustration. It reflects a growing perception that the seven school board members currently serving — some of whom have held office for decades and none that now have children in Newport-Mesa schools — have grown complacent and out of touch.

Board members are also routinely accused of maintaining a too-cozy relationship with the top district administrators they are elected to oversee and of rubber-stamping administrative initiatives.

In a joint statement, Peters, Bubb and Schwarzmann contend that “limiting service to three terms will mandate a regular change, guaranteeing new voices and perspectives move through the board. Our current board rarely questions the administration on any issue — from curriculum design to fiscal accountability.”

This purported lack of vigorous oversight has opened the door, they believe, to a long list of scandals and controversies that have plagued the district in recent years.

It’s easy to sympathize with this view. Time and again, it has appeared as if the board has marched in lockstep with Supt. Fred Navarro as a host of troubling issues have called into question his leadership. Fresh, energetic faces on the board could prove to be a welcome antidote.

Still, term limits work better in theory than they do in practice.

Granted, the research that’s been done on the subject so far has looked primarily at state legislatures, not school boards. That evidence suggests that term limits have done little to counter cronyism, increase diversity, or improve legislative outcomes. Meanwhile, a certain amount of experience and institutional knowledge is lost, and longer-term initiatives sometimes fail to gain traction as more short-term fixes are sought.

A report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that term limits, while enticing to voters, “have eroded legislative capacities in unhelpful ways.” Even some former supporters of term limits have later expressed regret over their adoption.

That’s not to say that the proposal by the new school board candidates wasn’t a shrewd political move. Indeed, it calls attention to their campaigns, and to their compelling message that change is needed at the district.

If nothing else, the challengers are underscoring the point that they represent an alternative to trustees who may well have tarried too long in their seats.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.