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Is That Schoolbell Ringing for Me

by Kathy Ridge

December 9,2010

Two school board members received death threats last month – the very same week I was to decide to run for school board in 2011. Not looking like such a great idea.

I have been working close to Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and public education for six years. After a 20-year corporate career, I have found great satisfaction in the nonprofit sector. But over time, a faint bell started tinkling: could I do more? Could I have more impact?

I've tried to push this notion away for months. It's inconvenient. It would dramatically change my life. I don't have political aspirations, and though I'm interested in serving on the Board of Education, I don't have an appetite for running for office. Like all elections, it will be the best fundraiser and campaigner who wins. (I often wonder if the best campaigner is the best person to govern, once in office.) And there are three incumbents. I've learned there is less than a 50% chance of defeating an incumbent, regardless of who they are. We voters might not follow local politics closely, but when we enter the voting booth, if we recognize a name on the ballot we think, “Oh I've heard of her!” and pull the lever.

Voters also respond to yard signs – hard to believe, because I detest them. I joke with friends about how they pop up like Christmas decorations, months before anyone cares. But apparently we need to be hit visually with a name repeatedly, and we make voting decisions based on that familiarity. We even respond to colors on yard signs. (Men like royal blue.) If you're attractive, a picture on a yard sign is a plus. If you're not glam, or want to de-emphasize your race or gender, best lose the picture. Then there is “robocalling,” recorded telephone messages which I've heard candidates should use to call voters numerous times – name awareness again, even if they hang up before listening to the message.

We all know that it takes money to run and win – but I had no idea how much. For a county-wide office, there are city council members and county commissioners in Mecklenburg County who have spent over $100,000. Some candidates have spent a lot less. With draconian budget cuts once again hitting the schools, it seems shameful to raise that much money and then spend it on campaigning – that's at least enough to keep two or three teachers employed. But of course, it takes money to make people aware of who you are, what you stand for, and why they should vote for you. I wonder: does it require $75,000 - $100,000 to win, or do candidates just spend however much they raise with no direct correlation between expenditures and victory?

Sounds like an unpleasant and unrewarding experience doesn't it? I can talk myself out of doing this: time, money, yard signs – and possibly death threats if I win.

But with every news article detailing more complications for CMS, that distant bell clangs louder. My own voice is saying, “you have business experience and common sense: you could help. Isn't this your responsibility?”

I am not arrogant enough to assume that no one else could do as well as me, or that I am “the one” called to serve. Deciding to run for local office (particularly school board, where politics hits closest to home) must be a bit like trying to decide to get married or have children: if you tried to make those decisions strictly rationally, you would probably never do it. It's never the right time; you could always wait until it's more convenient. I hope others out there are also seriously contemplating serving in public office – don't assume it's not up to you.

For me, the decision can't be about self-sacrifice or being in the spotlight. My deliberation is best expressed in that marvelous quotation about finding your best place, “neither the soft berth nor the hair shirt will do. Your work is where your skills come together with the world's needs.” Much to think about, and much to act upon.

Editor's note: Kathy Ridge has not yet determined her candidacy for the 2011 election; however, Charlotte Viewpoint does not endorse any political candidates, official or potential.

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