Published Online: February 25, 2014
Published in Print: February 26, 2014, as State Lawmakers Aim to Rejigger Local School Board Elections

State Lawmakers Aim to Rejigger Local School Board Elections

Place on calendar, partisan status eyed

In the latest attempt by state legislators to change how local school board elections work, two Kansas bills under consideration would alter their place on the electoral calendar, and, in one case, their nonpartisan status.

Proponents of such legislation, which would group more local elections together, and in some cases put them on the same ballot as both statewide and federal elections, say that it is a relatively straightforward way to boost the often-anemic turnout for these board elections at little or no extra cost.

That argument could have special force in an election year like 2014, which includes 36 gubernatorial races, and legislative races in all but four states, as well as congressional elections. It would also coincide with greater interest in school-related electoral politics by advocacy groups and others.

Such legislation, which has been considered in the past two years in Arkansas and Delaware, would also bring some uniformity to a hodgepodge of state and local laws on the timing of school board elections.

Right now, 17 states don't set clear requirements in terms of when local school board elections must be held, according to recent information compiled by the National School Boards Association. Many states allow local boards at least some flexibility in setting election dates, and four states (Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, and South Carolina) allow local boards complete discretion in setting election dates. Even where states control the dates of local elections, there is significant variation between states in terms of their place on the calendar.

Tricky Mechanics

However, some school boards question whether reshuffling the timing of their elections would truly boost turnout, since those races would generally—if not exclusively—appear at the bottom of new, longer ballots. In addition, school boards have concerns about the mechanics of merging school board elections, which often cross city and county lines, with others, as well as the timing with respect to school budgets and other responsibilities.

The two bills in Kansas were actually introduced last year, but they are receiving additional consideration from lawmakers this month. Senate Bill 211 would shift the local school board elections to match state and federal contests in even-numbered years, as well as make the board elections partisan—right now they are nonpartisan. House Bill 2227 would group a variety of local elections, including for city offices and boards of public utilities, as well as school boards—together in the November of odd-numbered years, and keep them nonpartisan. (Kansas has 286 school districts, and all but one hold elections to select their members.)

Supporters of the measures say grouping the school board elections together in some way would get more people to vote in them. Although the House bill in its present form would not make the elections partisan, state party officials support both bills.

In testimony submitted this month for the House bill, Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold told lawmakers, "Partisan designations by candidates give clear signals to voters on the candidate's general political philosophy and view on issues."

But there's no clear reason why school board members need or should want a partisan dimension added to their elections, said Mark Tallman, the associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, which opposes both bills.

The timing of elections also is a point of conflict. Right now, Kansas school board elections take place in April, with members taking office July 1. This works well with both the timing of school budgets and boards' annual evaluations of their superintendents, Mr. Tallman said. Changing the timing of elections would disrupt both, in the view of his members.

"This is sort of a solution looking for a problem," he said. "There's really no guarantee that the turnout would be better if you did move it."

'Suppressing the Vote'

In Arkansas, a bill to shift school board elections was introduced last year by GOP Sen. Eddie Joe Williams. Senate Bill 587 passed the state Senate but failed in the House. That failure triggered Arkansas Learns, a K-12 advocacy group in the state, to initiate a get-out-the-vote campaign for school board elections, which took place on Sept. 17 last year.

The president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock-based Arkansas Learns, Gary Newton, said that in the 2012 school board elections for roughly 240 districts, only 36,000 voters voted, according to data collected by his organization. Not aligning school board elections to general elections amounts to "suppressing the vote," he argued.

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"Less than 1 percent of the electorate was voting in school elections. And, unfortunately, they had turned into more insider elections with more employees dominating," Mr. Newton said.

However, some elections hold significantly more consequences than others. In one Arkansas school election held last year in Bauxite School District Number 14, for example, only one position was up for election, and only one candidate stood for the post. The only other item on the school board ballot was whether voters were "for" or "against" the district's tax rate. But if an Arkansas district is not proposing a change in the tax rate (the Bauxite district sought no tax increase or decrease), that vote has no impact on the district's tax rate, even if voters reject it.

Mr. Newton acknowledged that his group's voting campaign last year didn't appear to have significantly increased turnout. But he said his group would make the issue a priority in the state's 2015 legislative session, when a new bill similar to Sen. Williams' can be considered.

Vol. 33, Issue 22, Page 13

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