This commentary was first published in 1999 in Michigan Education Report. The author was president of the Michigan School Board Leaders Association and is now director of school choice in the U. S. Department of Education.
Public schools have a greater day-to-day impact on Michigan citizens than perhaps any other government institution. Ideally, in a representative form of government, the government institution is accountable to the citizens and every effort is made to encourage participation in elections. However, school districts must take a failing grade in the subject of representative government. Low voter turnout, in school board and school finance elections, allows a vocal minority to exert inordinate control over decisions that have a profound influence on children.
Michigan voters consistently list education as their top concern in polls; yet each year turnout rates remain pitifully low. School election reform must address the factors that account for this disparity. Exhaustive analysis yields a surprisingly simple solution: consolidate school board and school finance elections with more visible, federal, state and local 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.
Voter turnout rates below ten percent are common in Michigan school elections. In Ann Arbor, an area that has a reputation for emphasizing education, turnout has been well under six percent for the past three years. In 1997, Ann Arbor School 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.
General election turnout is considerably higher than school election turnout. Since 1992, turnout rates for the Michigan general election have averaged 51.8 percent. Van Buren School Board Trustee Vesta Losen believes that consolidating school elections with November general elections would reduce confusion and increase voter turnout. “It is a common sense solution,” she says.
The city of Royal Oak placed a proposal on the 1996 August primary ballot asking 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.
But low voter turnout in school elections must be attributed to more that just inconvenience and confusion. As Tom Bowles, chairman of the Michigan School Board Leaders Association and a public school board trustee 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 Michigan Association of School Boards stated, “We want to get the most knowledgeable people at the polls, not necessarily the masses.”
State Sen. Joanne Emmons (R-Big Rapids), once expressed shock at encountering this attitude among school board members. She was quoted in a February 1998 Observer & Eccentric (a weekly suburban Detroit newspaper) article as saying, “I nearly fell off my chair...when a school board member, who shall be unnamed, said in our hearing, We don't want all those people voting in OUR election.”
In addition to allowing greater accountability, school election consolidation is fiscally responsible. In some years there are more than a thousand costly school elections across Michigan. Consolidation will save schools money and allow them to spend more time and resources on children.
Placing school elections on the November ballot 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.
By requiring that school governance and finance issues appear on the general election ballot, Michigan will create a more accountable school system that better reflects the desires of Michigan citizens. Michigan children deserve nothing less.