House Education takes up a problematic bill from Representative Doug Post (R-7/Volga). House Bill 1177 would move school board elections from taking place each year during spring to taking place every other year at the same as the general election.
I can see some logic to moving a local election to coincide with the general election. Having a local election separate from the big statewide election almost guarantees lower turnout. Electing school board members at the same time as we elect Governor or President would likely mean more ballots cast for school board, lending those local offices more numerical legitimacy.
But moving the election to a busier time of year seems a poor way to inspire greater attention to school board elections. Larger vote totals for school board candidates in November might not constitute any greater legitimacy or public interest; they might just count the voters who had no idea there was a school board election going on under all the noise of the Presidential, Congressional, gubernatorial, and Legislative contests and who decided to at least mark a name or two they recognized, without any real knowledge of what those candidates proposed to do on the school board.
School board elections may not get a majority of voters excited no matter what month those elections are held, but at least the springtime elections offer school board candidates a chance for attention they won’t get in the fall. Keeping school board elections in the spring may also keep away an unwanted form of attention: the attention of partisan campaigners. School board elections, like the municipal elections that frequently coincide with them in the spring, are non-partisan. Local races should be kept non-partisan (and we should extend that non-partisanship to county races, and maybe everything else on the ballot, but that’s a whole not her blog post). Putting school board candidates in the field at the same time as all the party hacks shouting for Legislative and higher candidates opens the door for the political machines to work for more collateral influence in school board politics. It’s a lot cheaper to throw a couple school board candidates onto a flyer or newspaper ad for your local party team in late October than it is for the party to run a whole separate ad for school board candidates running on their own in April or May. Moving the school board elections to the general make it easier for a party to work for complete domination of all elected offices and to drown out honest public discussion of practical school governance issues with partisan slogans. Seeing how partisan politics play out in Pierre, making school board elections more partisan will not benefit education.
Pairing school board elections with the general election risks reducing voter attention to their school board candidates while increasing partisan meddling in these important non-partisan offices. It also reduces how often voters get to cast ballots and hold their local boards accountable.
Right now, schools hold elections each year. Members serve three-year terms, and each election brings another couple-three members up for a vote. If the board is going off course, ten every spring, voters can throw at least a couple bums out and send new members to talk some sense into their errant board. Under HB 1177, voters have to wait two years to whack bad boards with the electoral stick. Worse, it extends board member terms from three years to four. Both changes means boards answer to the public less often.
HB 1177 decreases opportunities for public participation in governing their schools. That’s bad for local democracy.
Now maybe Representative Post plans to argue that combining school board elections with statewide elections will at least save some money. But it doesn’t look like he thought through school election law deeply enough to produce much in the way of savings. HB 1177 doesn’t affect the statutes that require school districts to conduct their own elections separately from the county. The school business manager handles candidate petitions and absentee voting, prints the school ballots, and provides poll books and voting booths and other election supplies, all at school district cost. The school board canvasses the school ballots. HB 1177 strikes the statute allowing school districts to share costs on elections with municipalities—which makes sense, since HB 1177 leaves the munis high and dry with their elections in springtime—but provides no comparable language allowing school districts to cooperate and share costs with the counties.
I always lament the low turnout that our local elections get in spring. If legislators have ideas on how we can get more people involved in school board elections, I’m all ears. But throwing non-partisan elections into the partisan fall furor and reducing the opportunities voters have to vote for their school board candidates seems to promise less engagement, not more, in school board elections.
House Education will consider the impact of fewer elections and longer board member terms on democracy and education on Wednesday morning, bright and early at 7:45 a.m. in Capitol Room 413.