Friday, November 18, 2011

Meddling with School Elections

Governor Snyder has received and will likely sign into law Senate Bill 427/House Bill 4005, requiring school board elections to be held only in November in even years. The sponsors say that this will save money, but that should not be the only consideration.

I remember when my then-State Representative Phil LaJoy sponsored the elections consolidation legislation that limited school election dates to four times a year. I had no problem with that, but the law also took these elections out of the hands of school districts and turned them over to city and township clerks — which would supposedly be much more efficient. For a district like Van Buren Public Schools, which straddles two counties (including all or parts of the City of Belleville and the Townships of Van Buren, Canton, Sumpter, Ypsilanti, and Van Buren), this was a mistake.

Our elections now cost the district three-to-four times as much as when we ran them ourselves. So you can understand that I am wary of legislators (and one sponsor is my current State Senator, Patrick Colbeck) promising once again to save us money!

The rationale is that off-year elections have lower voter participation than those in even years, when state and national offices are on the ballot, too. Indeed, the just-concluded November 2011 election saw a turn-out of about 15% of the electorate. I would assume that elections on the other three allowed dates have a similarly lower turnout. I could understand a rule that most elections, and certainly those for regular school board selections, should be held in November, when people expect to be voting. But there are good reasons not to further constrain school elections by limiting them to every other year.

My real concern is that this will force us, every other election, to elect trustees to four seats at once: a majority of the school board of seven. It is not good at all to allow the routine prospect of the election of a majority of newcomers at once, but it is especially dangerous at a time when we are in desperate financial straits. Until they have served, prospective trustees simply do not understand public school finance, which is so different from the business practices of other organizations. We must annually adopt budgets before we know what our revenues will be (because predictions of student count have been so unreliable during this prolonged downturn) and with no control over those revenues. This is not an enterprise for the inexperienced! All one must do is look at the severely term-limited legislature and the many bills that have had unintended side effects or have had to be fixed after enactment to see the down side of inexperience in governance.

Another worry is how easy it will be for the traditionally non-partisan school board elections to become politicized. We already saw that in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools this fall, where a local Republican club endorsed and paid to campaign for a slate of four PCCS board candidates. It will be disastrous for both public education and communities if this politicization becomes routine. I believe that it is the very prospect of electing a controlling majority that encourages that politicization.

This is, in my opinion, a solution in search of a problem. Most of our component municipal entities hold November elections in odd years anyway, for city offices or routine tax renewals, which is why we moved our school elections to every November. If city and township clerks do not wish to run elections just for the schools, that responsibility could be returned to the schools. I am unaware of any fraud or other mismanagement of such elections in all the decades they were left in our hands.

Considering the likely deleterious side effects of these bills — high probabilities of both putting inexperienced trustees immediately in charge of school districts and encouraging the governance of schools to become partisan — I wrote to strongly urge the governor to refrain from signing this plan into law. There simply is no compelling reason for the state to be micromanaging school districts any further.

If this plan does become law, it might be wise to change the term for trustees from four to six years, to prevent such a turnover all at once. I cannot predict what effect this might have on the pool of candidates willing to make the longer commitment. But I can imagine it would worsen the problem of “buyer’s remorse,” where voters regret electing someone and are then stuck with that person for six years. I can imagine that that would encourage recall campaigns at a time when boards all over the state are forced to make very unpopular cuts to people and programs. And recall campaigns are very upsetting and divisive for communities.

Did the legislature really think this through? What was the compelling reason for meddling once again in local control?

1 comment :

  1. There simply is no compelling reason for the state to be micromanaging school districts any further.
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