A proposal to move school board elections from February to November to increase turnout already has drawn protests from the head of the state school board group, who is concerned the elections will become partisan affairs.
However, a suggestion worth considering from state Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax would help alleviate those fears. Ziriax's plan would be to hold local elections, such as school board and city elections, in November of odd-numbered years and to hold federal, state and county elections in November of even-numbered years.
School districts also would save money by switching from annual elections to elections every other year.
“If you get into partisan issues, then your candidates are going to have to spend a lot more money ultimately and you just lessen the number of candidates that would want to run,” said Jeff Mills, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
Low turnout is a big concern with school board elections, with turnout sometimes in the single digits. This apathy helps special-interest groups control the outcome.
Three bills have been filed in the Legislature that call for moving the school board elections to the November general election date. Another measure proposes changing the school board elections to June, which is a bad idea. People generally are thinking far less about school in June than they are in February.
“Little emphasis is put on these elections in odd times of the year; therefore our students suffer as a result,” said Rep. Josh Cockroft, author of House Bill 1544, which would move the elections to November.
Cockroft's bill also would change the terms of school board members so that every board member in Oklahoma serves a four-year term with elections staggered every other year. Currently, school board members have terms of three, four or five years, depending on the size of the board.
To avoid a possible runoff election, Ziriax suggests holding a primary election in August for all school board races with more than two candidates. Cockroft's bill would call for a runoff in February.
Combining school board elections with federal, state and county elections would add to the cost because of the logistics involved. School boards would have to use the longer, more expensive, ballots used in federal, state and county races to match the other ballots. Additional ballot storage boxes would need to be bought.
Because about half the state's precincts include more than one school district, Ziriax said, another election official would be needed at those polling places to ensure voters get the correct ballots.
Despite Mills' claim, partisanship already occurs in some school board races without regard to timing of the election. The move to November would give board candidates a better opportunity to reach a much larger voting base than in February.
However, school board candidates would need to compete for voters' attention on the longer ballots. That's another reason to consider adopting Ziriax's suggestion of placing the elections in odd-numbered years, which involve fewer races. The lower turnout in those years also would decrease election costs.