School & District Management Campaign Notebook

With Minor Hiccups, School Polling Places Pass Election Day Test

By Liana Loewus — November 07, 2008 2 min read
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In an election marked by high voter turnout, school officials around the country found themselves making some last-minute decisions on how to best manage public access to school-based polling places.

Reservations about safety and logistics became topics of discussion in some places in the days leading up to the election. The issue was complicated: Whether schools remain open on Election Day varies from state to state and even district to district. (“School-Based Voting Poses a Tricky Choice: Class Day, or Day Off,” Oct. 29, 2008.)

In Virginia, where the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People put pressure on Gov. Tim Kaine over election preparations, the Democratic governor told National Public Radio that he was discussing a number of options with local officials aimed at taking the pressure off some school-based polling sites.

Among the ideas, he told NPR: “Can you take the day off and have parent-teacher conferences or something that doesn’t take all the parking? Or if you can’t, can we move [the polls] to another place?”

Around the country, some school districts changed their usual procedures and closed for the first time on the day of a general election.

After seeing the record turnout for early voting, officials of the Savannah-Chatham public schools, a 34,000-student Georgia district, decided to cancel classes. Instead, they held a professional-development day for teachers.

Some schools in Boone County, Mo., were closed for the first time on Election Day as well. County Clerk Wendy Noren said the closures were a great help logistically.

“I have one middle school where the best room to [poll] is the cafeteria, but you can’t use it when school is in session because you have to serve lunch,” she said.

Stephen Serkaian, a spokesman for the 15,000-student Lansing, Mich., district, agreed that canceling school was the right decision.

“There was a phenomenal local turnout,” he said. “In Michigan, the polls open at 7 a.m. ... Voters came out as early as 5 a.m. to wait in line.”

Officials in districts that remained open seemed equally pleased with their own policies.

Nat Harrington, a spokesman for the 169,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., district, said parking was the worst problem his school system encountered, though school and county police officers directed traffic at the 78 schools used for polling there.

Traffic was a minor problem at schools in the 28,000-student Leander Independent School District in Texas, but spokesman Dick Ellis said the district’s long-standing policy of keeping schools open was not disruptive to students.

“Most of our polling was at elementary schools, and I don’t think the little kids knew there was anything different” about the school day, he said. “And that’s what we wanted.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week

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