Sunday, October 03, 2010

Portage Teacher Seeks Election To School Board In Violation Of Statute

Unlike firefighters and police officers, who by statute are permitted to serve as elected members of councils, teachers are prohibited from serving on school boards in the districts which employ them. Nonetheless, Bruce Sawochka, a teacher for the Portage Township Schools, is a candidate for an at-large seat on the school's board in this November's election. The Northwest Indiana Times' Joyce Russell writes:

Bruce Sawochka has been a teacher in Portage Township Schools for 17 years.

He decided this summer to run for the at-large seat for the Portage Township Schools board in the Nov. 2 election.

However, according to state law, a teacher cannot sit on that same district's governing body, said Dale Simmons, co-legal counsel for the Indiana Election Division, citing Indiana code 20-26-4-11.

"The statue says he cannot do both," said Simmons, adding that it is not illegal for a teacher to run for the School Board seat, but it is illegal to hold dual roles.

It's something Sawochka, who teaches social studies at Fegely Middle School, is aware of, but he doesn't believe it's fair.

"There is really no way to enforce that law," said Sawochka, adding that if he wins, the only two people who can challenge his eligibility are his two opponents, incumbent William Fekete and Robert "Ben" Wilson.

Simmons said that's not completely true.

"It provides a procedure that allows the county prosecutor to remove anybody for illegally holding an office," Simmons said, citing another state statute.

If Sawochka wins and doesn't resign or retire from his teaching position, he would be holding the School Board office illegally, said Simmons, adding his office "would encourage the county prosecutor to act."

Sawochka said he doesn't see a conflict. He would, he said, recuse himself from voting on any bargaining-related issue.
Russell's story notes both of Sawochka's opponents have indicated they will change his election if he wins in November. My question is why his name even appears on the ballot. It seems to me the Lake County Board of Elections had a duty to remove Sawochka from the ballot to avoid a post-election dispute over his election. The state law could not be more clear. I.C. 20-26-4-11 reads:

In addition to any other eligibility requirements for members of the governing body of a school corporation as set forth in law, an individual who is employed as a teacher or as a noncertificated employee (as defined in IC 20-29-2-11) of the school corporation may not be a member of the governing body of the school corporation.
State and local government employees and other agencies whose jobs are funded with federal dollars are prohibited from seeking election to partisan offices under the so-called federal Little Hatch Act. Indiana has incorporated the federal prohibition into state statute. Challenges to candidacies based on that Act have occurred with some regularity and resulted in candidates being forced to choose between running for the office sought or resigning their government-funded position. It is unclear to me why Sawochka's opponents didn't challenge his candidacy when he filed to run for the office. The Indiana Elections Divisions' guide for 2010 candidates clearly notes the prohibition contained in IC 20-29-2-11 in noting the qualification requirements for school board candidates. A school board candidate's nominating petition signed by at least 10 voters of the school district requires the candidate to sign a statement consenting to being a candidate for school board which states the candidate "meet[s] all qualifications for this office."

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