School board members are not up for re-election this year. That’s too bad, for a lot of people will be voting tomorrow. School board elections are held in off-years meaning years when no one is running for president or governor. Incumbent school directors and new candidates alike can wait until 2009 to decide whether to put their names on the ballot.
Why does it matter when an election is held? Two words: voter turnout. In 2005, the year when three of my board colleagues and I were elected, Cumberland County voters cast 26,405 votes in the April primaries. This past April, when better known names like Clinton, Obama, and McCain were on the ballot, Cumberland County voters cast 53,492 votes — more than twice as many as they cast three years earlier.
This matters because a small turnout magnifies the influence of well organized special-interest groups. Where public education is concerned, blocs of voters organized on behalf of causes that range from the role of religion in schools to the installation (pro or con) of artificial turf on athletic fields. That’s as it should be. In a healthy democracy citizens are constantly organizing to elect people who’ll share their interests. However teacher unions far out number all the other special-interest groups in public education.
A problem arises when any relative handful of voters can exercise influence out of proportion to their actual numbers in the total electorate. In a typical Carlisle Area School Board election, there’ll probably be 2,000-2,500 voters. A group that can reliably mobilize 200 voters in an off-year election has up to twice the influence that it would have if the total turnout were doubled. Of course, it’s possible that a larger turnout would produce the same pattern.
I became interested in off-year elections while looking at a number of transparency issues in public education. I’ve started a blog (http://www.schoolboardtransparency.org/) with a focus on how contracts are negotiated between school boards and teacher unions. These contracts account directly for about half of the money we spend on public education.
School boards should state openly what they are offering and why at the very beginning of negotiations, and unions should be equally open about what they are asking for and why. Neither side will always be right, but voters, who are always urged to lobby their school boards if negotiations get difficult, deserve enough information to evaluate proposals on facts, not rumors.
Off-year elections are a transparency issue. Defenders of off-year voting for school directors say it “takes the politics out of public education.” That’s another way of saying it “takes democracy out of public education.” Even in a medium-sized district like Carlisle, the amount of money involved may surprise most taxpayers. Our local school budget is about $60 million this year. During the 13 years between now and when children who enrolled in kindergarten this fall graduate from high school, assuming costs continue to grow at current rates, we’ll have spent a total of $1 billion. Money for public education is one of the best investments we can make, but a billion dollars is surely enough to justify regular citizen oversight.
Off-year school board elections reduce the influence of parents and taxpayers on public education at precisely the time when parents and taxpayers should be paying the most attention. I doubt that this situation is accidental. It is only one example of how effectively the political system shields key decisions and decision-makers from public view.
But changes can occur in response to voter pressure. For example, although school construction programs are far less expensive than school employee contracts, public outrage over “Taj Mahal” building designs led the Legislature to require that school boards hold public hearings on construction plans.
By all means, vote for the presidential candidates of your choice this November, but also remember to vote next April and next November for the school board candidates of your choice. Better yet, let your state representative know that you think public education is important enough to deserve more visibility and transparency when key decisions are being made.
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Fred D. Baldwin, a member of the Carlisle Area School Board, is the project manager of SchoolBoardTansparency.org, a website and blog dedicated to promoting greater transparency in school district labor negotiations. SchoolBoardTansparency.org is a project of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.commonwealthfoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.