President Franklin Roosevelt in a 1938 speech told Americans that their government was not "an alien power" but the result of the wishes of the citizenry. "The ultimate rulers of our democracy," said FDR, "are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials but the voters of this country."
This noble ideal of representative government should be taught and learned across the country. Yet quite a different ethic too often applies to the governance of public schools. Small voter turnout in school board and school finance elections often allows a well-organized minority, with a vested personal interest in the outcome, to wield inordinate influence and control. Reform is long overdue.
With the state of Michigan turning over about $9 billion in taxes to local school districts each year, there is a compelling need for far more citizens to involve themselves in the governance of public schools.
Yet the percentage of those who vote in school elections is often in the single digits. One of the worst turnouts was in June 1995 in Jackson Countys North Adams school district. Only five of the fifteen hundred people eligible to vote actually made it to the polls to vote on a request for 18 mills in property taxes. State Senator George McManus, a leader of school election reform, is right when he says that "it seems to me that when 98 percent of the people stay home, thats not a good cross-section of the electorate."
Low voter turnout in Michigan school elections cannot be attributed to apathy alone. In many places there have been deliberate attempts to suppress turnout so that the school employees union and school administrators can more easily influence the outcome.
Linda Beers of the Michigan Association of School Boards said in 1996, "We want to get the most knowledgeable people at the polls, not necessarily the masses." Bay City School Board President William Martin echoed those sentiments in 1998 by pointing out that, "One thing to worry about trying to pass a bond issue or something like that is that more people might mean more no votes." And Curt Benson, President of the Grand Rapids Board of Education agreed. He stated a year ago: "I dont want to devise a system that creates voter turnout simply to create voter turnout." Democracy does get in the way of those who would like to run things their way.
Currently, Michigan school districts can call an election every six months. A school vote might be in February one year and June the next. Polling places for these elections are often sites other than those used in general elections, and citizens are confused even more when some districts have elections on days other than the customary Tuesday.
The need for reform of Michigan school elections is obvious. By requiring that school governance and finance issues appear on the November general election ballot, significantly more citizens will know the place and time of the election and will exercise their right to decide how their schools will be governed. Ballot consolidation will also relieve school officials of the responsibility for conducting elections and allow them instead to focus that time and money on children. County clerks have the training, resources and responsibility for running elections and are better prepared to manage fair and efficient ones.
In some years there are more than a thousand millage elections in Michigan. These elections are costly regardless of turnout. If consolidated on the November ballot, millions of dollars currently spent on elections could be redirected to the needs of students.
School elections in Dearborn and Detroit are already consolidated on the November ballot. When the City of Royal Oak placed a proposal before voters in 1996, asking them if school elections should be held in November, nearly 90 percent of voters supported the measure.
Michigan citizens, particularly parents, have too much at stake to allow the cynical manipulation of school elections to continue any longer. If government schools are ever to be accountable to parents and taxpayers, their control must be wrested from those who seek to serve themselves at the expense of both the voters and children.