New York is famous for its abysmally low turnout in regular elections, routinely scoring near the bottom of the 50 states.
But when it comes to school elections like the one coming up on Tuesday, turnout in school board elections and budget votes makes those other elections look like someone made voting mandatory.
We’ve never understood why.
Each year around this time, we plead with voters to show up for school elections.
We tell them how school budgets make up 60% to 80% of their local tax bills, which for many homeowners is a hefty load. We tell them they’re deciding the fate of our children’s education, including how many teachers districts can hire, the types of educational and social programs they can offer, the condition of the buildings the kids learn in, and whether there are enough books, computers, musical instruments and sporting equipment to go around.
It all matters, on a lot of levels.
And school votes are unique in that they offer voters to the chance to vote directly on budgets, unlike every other government entity with the exception of public libraries. From villages and towns, all the way up to the state and federal government, we in New York elect someone to make those budgetary decisions for us. With school budgets, we get to say thumbs-up or thumbs-down ourselves. If the budget doesn’t pass, they have to change it. And if they want to go beyond the limits of the property tax-cap levy, they need a super-majority of voters to go along.
Maybe the lack of urgency among voters to participate has to do with the image of school board members. They’re volunteers, usually parents or other good-hearted members of the community involved in the PTA or other school functions just doing their civic duty. They’re not seen as real politicians, like the ones who run for mayor or city council or the state Legislature or Congress.
Another reason might have to do with the fact that even as school budgets rise almost every year, they don’t rise to the level that makes people upset.
Prior to the enactment of the state tax-levy cap in 2015, school budgets regularly rose 5% or more each year, sometimes 10% or more. When your taxes are jumping 8% in one year, you’re more likely to pay attention and more likely to take advantage of your right to vote. But people don’t realize that even modest school tax increases are like death by a thousand cuts. Over just a few years, those 2% annual spending increases really add up.
While voters don’t seem to realize the importance of school votes and the power held by the school board members to have a significant influence on public policy and on their communities, some candidates and their supporters are starting to.
They’re treating their elections like real political races. And that should get voters’ attention.
In Saratoga Springs, where the big issue this year is whether schools should have armed resource officers patrol the halls, a group of candidates running as a bloc in favor of that one position actually hired a national Republican political consultant to help them organize their efforts and pool their resources. That’s what political candidates and political parties do when they want to win.
If it’s that important to them, it should signal to voters that what these candidates are after is important.
Candidates are running as slates with a collective platform, not just as individual candidates with a desire to serve. There’s always been some organization in spots, but it seems like we’re seeing it more and more. A group of school board candidates running under a name like “Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools” is a step away from political parties.
Candidates are also raising money for their campaigns, individually and as a group, rather than funding modest campaigns out of their own pockets or with a little help from family and friends. Yet school elections are covered under rules set by the state Department of Education, rather than the more stringent campaign finance regulations imposed on political candidates by the state Board of Elections.
Some candidates see school board seats as a springboard to other elected offices. With school board races becoming more political, might we see more of this in the future? And if these people are some day going to seek other political posts, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to who’s serving on these boards?
Here at The Gazette, we’re seeing a spike this season in letters to the editor about school board candidates, in much the same way such letters increase during traditional political campaigns. In Saturday’s paper, we published 14 letters related to the upcoming school election, with other letters scattered throughout the last month or so. And many of them had the same contentious tenor as regular election letters. We’re guilty of contributing to the image of school board races being different than political races, by not applying our traditional deadlines and word limits for regular elections to school board races. We never really felt the need in the past. We’ll do it next year.
Even our news coverage is adapting to covering more school board races in ways similar to the way we cover political races, with more detailed stories on candidate positions and the issuance and publication of candidate questionnaires.
CHANGES SHOULD BE MADE
To boost voter turnout in these all-important races, state officials might consider the changes in how school elections are being conducted, perhaps by holding voting on multiple days and for longer hours to make it more convenient.
In examining the changing nature of school board campaigns, the state should consider imposing stricter regulations on campaign contributions, expenditures and transparency before these campaigns get out of hand.
It should also require districts, when practicable, to hold votes on capital projects such as school renovations and major purchases on the same day as the budget and school board vote, rather than scattered throughout the year on days when many people might not be aware of a vote taking place.
And the state should clarify and enforce regulations that require school districts to post budget information on district websites prior to school votes.
Right now, what budget information gets posted varies from district to district, giving some voters less information about their respective school budgets than voters in other districts.
In the end, no one can force you to vote. No one can force you to care.
But if you want to take your cue from this year’s activities, then you might start to take school elections as seriously as the candidates and their supporters are taking them.
They must have a good reason.