Yesterday, citizens and residents of Delaware lamented the very poor turnout for local school board elections. All told, based on unofficial results from each county’s Board of Elections, less than 7,500 people voted. Those numbers are a source of ire for many this morning on social media. Everyone is asking why.
As myself and others pointed out, school board elections are held every single year on the 2nd Tuesday of May. The polls are open at various schools in each district from 10am until 8pm. Current legislation would change the start time to 7am in an effort to be consistent with other elections in Delaware. In competitive districts, such as Red Clay and Christina, signs are placed by candidates all over the place.
Some folks said doors were locked at schools when they went to vote. Others said they didn’t even know the elections were taking place. The state’s biggest newspaper, The News Journal, did not give out surveys to candidates and did not give the elections the coverage they deserve. Some people said it was the job of the candidates to get the word out.
Not every district had an election due to only one candidate filing. This was true in Dover, the capital of Delaware. Capital Board President Sean Christiansen ran unopposed. This is the first time that happened in Capital School District in many years. But in Red Clay, where only 1,724 votes were cast, and Christina, which had 2,246 between two elections, those numbers pale in comparison to the actual populations they represent.
School boards are very important to communities. They make decisions for the children that attend their schools as well as decide how much folks pay in school taxes. Those numbers are set by the business leaders in the districts based on their budget but the school board votes on it. It is a rare occasion where a school board does not pass their budget and tax matters. School boards also vote on when a school district has to go out for a referendum. By the time a school district feels they have to go out for a referendum, it is because they know they won’t have enough money in a certain area whether it is for operating costs or construction (known as capital costs). But they are the public face of a school district. Most of the big decisions have already been decided on by the district. The school board just votes on those decisions. In many cases, the board votes on the whims of the district with few exceptions. Some parents attend board meetings religiously but most do not. Parent engagement is something all school districts strive for but unless it is a sports or entertainment event, turnout tends to be low.
In some situations, school board members listen to the voices of parents or other residents and put forth policy for their board to vote on. This can be controversial at times with matters such as parent opt out of standardized testing, what books can be read in a district, or even how a board feels about current legislation or regulations such as the very controversial Regulation 225.
Not every decision in a school district is decided on by a school board. State law and federal mandates demand schools follow certain rules and protocols. Those are things, like the IDEA special education law or state testing requirements, that a school board can not tweak or change. At times, local school board members can develop a strong voice in opposition to certain state and federal laws. This can cause discontent amongst school board members. While many school districts tend to rubberstamp action items desired by the district, other districts like Christina can have lively board meetings where members openly challenge each other and do not always agree.
Charter schools, which represent about 15% of Delaware public schools, do not hold elections for their boards. It is decided on by the board itself. Charters can draw students from different districts so holding an election to the general population would be very tough to do.
For parents that reside in school districts but do not have children in those schools, whether they attend private schools, charter schools or homeschool, how do they even become aware of school board elections? If they don’t subscribe to the News Journal or other local media and do not follow school districts on social media, how would they even know a school board election is taking place? The same can be said for residents who do not have children such as the elderly. Many of these residents do not feel they have skin in the game so why should a local school board election matter?
What makes school board elections different is they are not based on a certain political party. It truly doesn’t matter whether you are Republican or Democrat as party affiliation should not play a factor. What drives many folks to vote in the General Election is whether or not the candidate is Republican or Democrat.
Like myself, there are others in the state who follow education like pollen to a honeybee. We tend to vote and write about education all the time. But we are not the norm. Unless you are actively involved on social media and follow things, you may not be acutely aware of things like school board elections or referenda. As well, the timing of school board elections is somewhat odd. It is in the heart of Spring during a time when many students are involved in spring sports. It is during a work day. But these are things that still occur during the General Election in November each year. What is the difference? State and national politics are written about in the media more extensively than school boards. There is more money that flows into candidate coffers during their elections. School board members do not get paid for their service whereas legislators and other elected positions do. That changes the landscape and the stakes for candidates. For some legislators, that is their primary source of income so they have to get out there and rally for votes.
I won’t pretend to have an answer to this question. Changing the start time could have a difference in votes, but to truly win the hearts and minds of Delawareans and why they need to vote in these elections is the challenge of the day. Some have suggested holding school board elections during the General Election while others feel candidates would lose their voice if they had to compete for attention against other elections. Personally, I feel the Department of Elections should place billboards up and down the state informing people of when school board elections are. Some have said the school districts need to make more parents aware but that limits the voting populace. In some districts, there could be more voters who don’t have children in the local school district than those that do. Why not hold school board elections on Saturdays instead of during the work week?
In a state with almost a million people and over 130,000 children in public education, 7,500 votes is nothing. It is a drop in the bucket. Even though they don’t make state-wide decisions, they do make major decisions for the communities we live in.