The following was published on June 7 by Michigan Information Research Service (MIRS), as Mr. Reed's monthly column
A package of bills making its way through the Legislature would make major improvements in the way in which public schools handle school board and finance elections. These bills would consolidate all elections to four dates per year and require all school districts to schedule (but not actually administer) school board elections in November of odd-numbered years unless the school board, after public hearings on the issue, passes a resolution that would change the date to May and allow for annual elections. Schools would have to make this choice once and for all, before the implementation date in 2005.
Furthermore, these bills would require no less than a 60 day notice before holding a special election on one of the approved days; require school districts to pay only their share of the election costs when sharing the ballot in general elections and pay the entire cost only if nothing else is on the ballot; and assign local clerks, not school officials who should have better things to do, the authority to conduct elections. More information on election consolidation bills can be found by accessing www.michiganvotes.org.
Is there a case for this election consolidation? You bet there is, and it's long overdue. It's something that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, as Michigan's leading education reform organization, has championed for years. Kudos are due to the sponsor of the lead bill, Senator Bev Hammerstrom, and others in the Legislature who have advanced this worthy cause from the start.
Voter turnout in school board elections averages a paltry five percent, in great measure because they're held in June rather than November, often at locations voters are unfamiliar with, and with little or nothing else on the ballot to draw voters to the polls. Consolidating those elections is a reform that will encourage government schools to be more accountable to a larger cross-section of taxpaying parents; increase parental involvement in education; diminish the use of "stealth" elections that some school districts have utilized to undermine wide public participation and "stack the deck"; and save money and man hours that should be spent educating children.
The Michigan School Board Leaders Association (MSBLA) has endorsed election consolidation. Its executive director, Lori Yaklin, pointed out in testimony before a legislative committee just how dismal voter turnout is in school elections:
"Currently, school elections may occur on various dates and at sites other than those used in general elections. Confusion often results because many citizens associate voting with the first Tuesday in November and they are accustomed to their general election polling location. In 1997, Ann Arbor Schools spent $55,000 on an election in which only 4.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In June 1995, Jackson County's North Adams School District recorded one of the lowest turnouts in Michigan history: Only five of the fifteen hundred eligible voters cast a ballot on an 18-mill property tax increase. Encouraging schools to consolidate schools with higher voter turnout elections will lead to greater participation in important decisions that affect the children of a community."
Senator George McManus, a long-time leader in school election reform, was right when he said that "it seems to me that when 98 percent of the people stay home, that's not a good cross-section of the electorate."
The responsible, reform-minded school board members of MSBLA may be courageous but untypical. Senator Joanne Emmons was quoted in a 1998 Observer & Eccentric newspaper article as expressing shock at the attitude of a school board member who actually wanted low voter turnout. "I nearly fell off my chair" said Senator Emmons, "when a school board member, who shall be unnamed, said in our hearing, "We don't want all those people voting in OUR election.'"
Tom Bowles, chairman of the MSBLA, once stated, "Unfortunately, some people try to suppress voter turnout in order to allow school employees to more easily influence the election. In too many cases the elected school boards are heavily weighted with employee group representation, instead of a good cross representation of the electorate."
Quotes from school officials across the state validate Bowles' assessment. In 1998, Grand Rapids School Board President Curt Benson stated, "I don't want to devise a system that creates voter turnout simply to create voter turnout." And Bay City School Board President William Martin advised, "One thing to worry about (when) trying to pass a bond issue or something like that is that more people might mean more `no' votes." In a 1996 article in The Flint Journal, Linda Beers of the establishment-oriented Michigan Association of School Boards stated, "We want to get the most knowledgeable people at the polls, not necessarily the masses."
Low voter turnout in school board and school finance elections, of course, is no accident. And it allows a vocal minority to exert inordinate control over decisions that have a profound influence on children. Consolidating those elections, as the package of bills I referred to above would do, is a big step toward parents and taxpayers taking charge of the schools for which they supply the students and the funds.
Some school districts in the state have already consolidated their elections with November general elections, and that is the norm in many states across the country. It is a common sense solution that should have been done years ago.
Writing in the June 11, 2001 Detroit News, Debbi Weimer and David Plank of Michigan State University argued that "There is no evidence that school boards perform worse when elections are held in November. The Lansing Public School District has a consolidated November election and a smart, dedicated school board."
The city of Royal Oak placed a proposal on the 1996 August primary ballot that asked voters to combine city and school elections. The voters overwhelmingly approved, with nearly 90 percent in favor. And Dearborn has already consolidated its school board election with the November general election. Clearly, the convenience of ballot consolidation strikes a chord with voters.
Consolidation will also deter what is possibly the most bothersome aspect of school elections: the tactic of holding repeated millage votes until voters pass a tax increase. Currently, special school elections can be held every 60 days.
Local control is usually something I support, and when it comes to curriculum, running schools on a day-to-day basis, and the hiring and firing of school employees, I would not favor bargaining it away. But it is plainly within the constitutional purview of the state to fix the terms of elections. Too many school boards are so captive to the self-serving agenda of the Michigan Education Association that they will not consolidate elections on their own, a fact which ends up subverting the whole purpose of the democratic process.
Election consolidation makes eminently good sense.