I’ve used this quote before in describing runoff elections, but it’s even more appropriate for the upcoming school elections. The poet Carl Sandburg wrote, "Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come." Each September in Arkansas, it could be said, "Sometime they’ll have an election, and nobody will vote."
Elections for school boards and school millages are occurring in Arkansas on Sept. 17, and turnout will be very low except in those few districts that are asking voters for a millage increase.
For example, turnout will be higher in the Bentonville School District, which is asking for $73 million — 70 teachers don’t even have a permanent classroom — with the fact that property taxes will increase by $5 a month on a $100,000 home. Also, splitting the high school population in two will weaken the football team.
Granted, in most cases turnout is low because voters have no reason to vote. If there is no millage increase request, voters are expected to ratify the current rate during each school election. If they vote against it, it remains where it is, anyway. Once elected, school board members often run unopposed until they leave office. It’s a thankless job that, unlike most other elected positions in Arkansas, doesn’t pay anything.
But even contested school board races can generate little interest. In 2011, Fayetteville School Board member Steve Percival was re-elected by two votes, 115-113, in a zone with more than 8,000 voters. This happened after Percival’s board twice had asked voters to approve millage increases for a new high school in high-profile elections. (The first failed; the second passed.) Those elections generated a lot of community interest. Percival’s race didn’t.
I publish a magazine, Report Card, with the Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA), and also do some publications work for that organization. Most school board members are local bankers, insurance agents, small business owners, retired teachers and church ministers who are committed to having good public schools. It’s worked out pretty well so far.
Still, if all it takes to win is 115 votes out of 8,000 people — that’s the kind of election that easily can be manipulated. A small group of voters can elect their candidate regardless of whom the majority would have selected had they cast ballots.
If it is a problem, should anything be done about it? Legislators often are asked to consider proposals to move school elections to November, when everyone else is voting. Supporters say that would result in much greater voter involvement and make it harder for some millage increases to sort of sneak through.
ASBA is firmly opposed to that, arguing that school board elections would get lost amongst all those paid positions on the long November ballot. ASBA is fine with low turnout if those who are voting really care about education. Plus, school boards consider superintendents’ contracts shortly after the first of the year. That would be hard for someone elected in November.
Another option would be to start paying school board members. In Florida, the state’s highest-paid school board members make $40,000, though Ruth Melton with the Florida School Boards Association said being a school board member there involves more responsibilities than in Arkansas. Also, because Florida has countywide school districts, there are a lot less school board members.
Paying school board members a salary would attract more candidates and more campaign money and therefore create more interest. Melton said Florida has competitive elections with campaign TV ads and everything.
More voter interest, but more politics? I’m not sure that’s a deal many Arkansans would want to make.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.