When it comes to school board races in Luzerne County, competition can be a rare commodity.
Voters in four districts have no real choice. Hanover Area and Lake-Lehman have four open seats and four candidates, according to the primary-election slate recently released by the county Election Bureau.
Northwest Area and Wyoming Valley West are even less competitive: Each has only three candidates for four seats.
Two other districts — Crestwood and Dallas — have only one candidate more than there are open seats.
Why such a scarcity of contenders?
In Lake-Lehman and Wyoming Valley West, the answer might stem from the election of members by region, said King’s College political science professor David Sosar, who has served on Hazleton City Council in the past and is running for that post this spring.
“I think electing by region does take a bit of the competition out of races,” Sosar said. “You really narrow your scope of potential candidates when you talk about regions.”
At Lake-Lehman, three incumbents are running on both party tickets unopposed: Kevin Cary in region one and Andrew Salko and David Paulauskas in region three. Region 2 incumbent Bo Keller opted not to seek re-election, and only one person, Robin Wesley, filed nominating petitions. Unless someone makes a strong write-in showing or popular independents enter the general election in November, that means the district’s race is over before it starts.
At Wyoming Valley West, incumbents from regions two, five and six — James Fender, Gordon Dussinger and Gary Evans, respectively — are the sole candidates on both party tickets. According to the county’s candidate list, no one filed to fill the open region 8 seat.
Sosar suspects the same dynamics — small pools of eligible voters available to begin with — might be one reason small districts have trouble fielding much of a slate. At Northwest Area, the county’s smallest district by enrollment, four open seats drew only three incumbents: Peter Lanza, Alton Farver and Michael Kreidler.
Hanover Area, which according to state data is the second-smallest district by enrollment — though just barely, compared to Lake-Lehman — also has only four candidates running for four seats: newcomer Stacy Ann McGovern and incumbents Lorraine Heydt, Evelyn Larson Evans and Frank Ciavarella Jr.
But district size is clearly not the only factor in determining competitive political races.
Wyoming Area, with only 200 more students than Lake-Lehman, has the second-highest number of candidates, nine vying for four seats: John Bonin, Kimberly Yochem, Michael Brown, Toni Valenti, Ree Ree DeLuca, Jerry Stofko and Nick DeAngelo will compete with incumbents John Marianacci and John Bolin.
Crestwood, which has about 500 more students than Wyoming Area, managed only five candidates for four seats: incumbents Eric Aideldinger and Norb Dotzel and newcomers Maureen McGovern, Peter Strecker and Randy Swank.
Hazleton Area, with by far the largest enrollment and the largest physical size, mustered eight candidates for four seats: incumbents Clarence John, Steve Hahn, Robert Mehalick and Carmella Yenkevich are joined by Thomas Chirico, James Chapman, Jared O’Donnell and Frederick Mariano.
Issues fuel interest
Sosar pointed out that Hazleton might exemplify the “ebb and flow” of interest in races, often fired by either specific issues — building construction or taxes, say — or by frustration with incumbents.
“You may have well-known names that have been around long enough to be hated,” Sosar said. But issues tend to be the biggest reason for competition.
“Personally, I believe it’s always based on issues,” he said. “If you are talking about buildings or taxes or things like that, there are issues that will interest or inflame people.”
Construction of the new Hazleton Area High School, completed in 1992, was a key issue behind several successful candidates in the late 1980s, Sosar noted. Yenkevich rose to prominence in the mid-1990s as the president of a PTA who increasingly fought for student issues, while Hahn became a winning candidate after the rise in the late 1990s of a taxpayer group that, at one point, could easily draw several hundred to its meetings.
But guessing which issue will draw candidates is risky at best.
Wilkes-Barre Area has the most competitive race this year, 10 candidates for four seats. Yet, when the school board was arguably at its low point thanks to arrests of three members or former members on federal corruption charges in 2009, the candidate list was smaller: eight contenders, the same as in 2011.
There’s one other reason school board races might not draw lots of contenders: Unlike most political positions, there is no pay for what Sosar contends is a thankless job.
“I don’t know that you can be a winner,” he said. “You can win the seat, but you’ve either got the unions against you because of cuts you have to make or the general public against you because of tax increases.”