School elections: big issues, few voters

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

You wouldn’t know it from all the political ads still running, but some of the most important elections in Arkansas this year have already occurred.

Those would be Tuesday’s school elections.

In Jacksonville and north Pulaski County, 95 percent of voters elected to separate from the Pulaski County Special School District, a large doughnut-shaped district that surrounds Little Rock and North Little Rock. Voters wanted more of a say in a district whose administrative offices are on the other side of the county.

That’s a big deal. Ninety-five percent of voters don’t agree on anything unless they live in North Korea. It also represents a temporary break from a historical trend of school consolidation. According to a history written by Kellar Noggle, former executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, Arkansas had 4,734 school districts in 1927. Before Tuesday, that number had shrunk to 238. Unless another consolidates before Jacksonville’s separation is complete, there will be 239.

While the Jacksonville election attracted almost 4,000 voters, turnout elsewhere was low, as always. Two competitive school board races that unseated incumbents in the 25,000-student Little Rock School District attracted a little over 1,300 voters. Before the election, Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, asked 400 Rotarians in Little Rock if they knew the date of the upcoming vote. Half a dozen raised their hands.

It’s a problem when a school board election in Little Rock is decided by a vote of 379-221. Those low numbers make it easier to manipulate an election and then manipulate policymaking. A candidate can be elected with the support of a few people with an agenda and then try to implement that agenda once in office.

The rest of this column will cover what, if anything, should be done about this low turnout. I should disclose that I publish a magazine, Report Card, in partnership with the Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA). It is supported by advertising, and ASBA does not pay me, but I have done other work in which it has. I think I can play this straight.

It’s understandable that school board elections attract little attention. School board offices are unpaid, part-time, and nonpartisan. Most candidates don’t have the funds to advertise and attract voters’ attention – especially in a year like this when the U.S. Senate and governor’s races grab so many headlines.

If the problem is simply a lack of attention, could that be fixed? Last year, the advocacy group Arkansas Learns spent $100,000 on advertisements and automated phone calls encouraging people to vote – not for a particular candidate, just to vote – in various contested races. It made so little difference that it did not repeat the effort this year.

Arkansas Learns’ president and CEO, Gary Newton, instead favors holding school board elections in November with the other races. Doing so would result in more voters expressing their will and would reduce the potential for manipulation that can result from low turnout. The idea has been proposed in previous legislative sessions and been voted down, but it might pass in 2015. Arkansas has moved the date of school elections before. A few decades ago, they were in March.

ASBA is opposed. It says school elections should be a separate vote and that November elections would politicize a traditionally nonpartisan office. Don’t make the local banker and the local farmer running for school board compete for attention with Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton, it says. A lot of voters will just end up guessing.

I come down on ASBA’s side on this. My November ballot is already too crowded with races for U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, land commissioner, county judge, sheriff, and who knows what else. I don’t even know who some of these people are or what the offices really do.

On the other hand, I publish a quarterly magazine for school board members, and this election nearly snuck up on me as a journalist. Who thinks about voting in September?

There is one other alternative: Get rid of school boards. However, so much power in education has already moved to the state and federal levels. Unless mayors are put in charge, without school boards, there would be no local control at all.

You might argue it doesn’t really matter where school policy is made. It certainly mattered to the folks in Jacksonville.

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