Birmingham School Board Members Dismayed at New Election Law

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in late November, moves school board elections to November during even-numbered years.

A new law that moves school board elections to November during even-numbered years has been on the books for more than a month and a half, but members of the Birmingham Board of Education are still worried about its implications.

"This is a game-changer," said school board member Geri Rinschler at the board's meeting Jan. 17, noting that school board elections will now be held at the same time as presidential and gubernatorial elections.

The new law was officially passed Nov. 29 and went into effect Jan. 1. The law has since been touted by Gov. Rick Snyder and its supporters in the Legislature as a way to save school districts money. According to release from the governor's office, the move could save some school districts upwards of $8 million over a two-year election cycle.

"Utilizing a standard election cycle will cut administrative costs and help schools maintain focus on educating students," Snyder said. "This change also allows for more consolidated elections, so voters have the best opportunity to make their voices heard."

School districts have had the option of conducting school board elections in May or November during odd-numbered years since 2004.

Birmingham schools was one of the districts that took advantage of the option. Trustees Christopher Conti and Robert Lawrence were recently re-elected to four-year terms during the November 2011 election. Trustee Lori Soifer was also first elected during an odd year — 2005.

At the Tuesday night meeting, board members agreed that the move isn't in the best interests of those looking to run for local school boards. Running during a presidential or gubertorial election is expensive, Rinschler pointed out, and often, school board candidates are shoved to the end of the ballot, where they're forgotten, she said.

In an interview with MLive, however, Kalamazoo County Clerk Tim Snow said the number of people who don't fill out the entire ballot will be offset by more people at the polls.

During the latest school board election in November 2011 — on a ballot shared with nine City Commission candidates and a school millage — Laura Broski said there were 2,771 ballots filled out that day, a 26 percent turnout rate. During the 2008 presidential election, meanwhile, more than 12,000 ballots were cast in Birmingham, a 79 percent voter turnout.

What was most distressing for school board members Tuesday night, however, was the potential for partisan politics to begin influencing school board elections.

"I've always been proud that we're independent," Rinschler said.

Superintendent David Larson said the school board will hold a special study session at 7 p.m. Jan. 31 to look closely at the issue of school board elections. Topics to be discussed include term lengths of current board members, and feedback will be solicited from community members.

Alan Stamm January 20, 2012 at 06:39 PM
It's unsettling when officeholders prefer low-turnout elections, though I have immense respect for our Board of Education and am acquainted with three of the seven members -- each of whom is a smart, dedicated, selfless steward of educational excellence. Still, I see no valid reason -- beyond self-interest -- to oppose filling school board seats at the same time as higher-profile state and national offices. Whether consolidated voting saves $8 million or $800,000 or $80,000 each two-year cycle, that's money the district can better use for instruction, enrichment or teacher incentives. Just as important is the benefit of wider participation to raise turnout above the 5,329 votes cast in the last board election. I don't always agree with Rick Snyder (understatement), but who among you -- besides incumbent trustees -- disagrees that it's healthy to let "voters have the best opportunity to make their voices heard"? Here's a move to increase the voice of stakeholders -- surely a school board goal. Professed concern about being overlooked at the bottom of a statewide ballot seems disingenuous from candidates who prefer off-year elections that a majority of registered voters overlook, as shown by this article's local turnout data for 2008 (79%) and 2011 (26%). [ Continued below . . . ]
Alan Stamm January 20, 2012 at 06:39 PM
[ Continued from above ^ ] The 2011 challenger lost by 443 votes. In no way do I suggest he deserved to unseat Chris Conti or Bob Lawrence, whose candidacy strengths and incumbency advantage likely would have brought the same outcome in 2010 or 2012 -- with a vastly higher turnout. Two years earlier, Lori Soifer won a second term -- quite deservedly, I feel -- by 133 votes, or 2% of the 6,477 cast in 2009. (Disclosure: I worked briefly as a communication consultant for her campaign committee.) We have a school board to be proud of, but a fact of political life is that low-turnout elections favor incumbents and challengers with enough community recognition and networking to wind up 133 or 443 votes ahead of someone else. That's harder to do when 79% of eligible voters mark ballots. A trustee is paraphrased as saying that running during a presidential or gubernatorial election is expensive. The added cost of more numerous mailers, yard signs and handouts is hardly an argument against having more district residents elect school trustees. [ Forgive me friends. This is about public policy, not personal admiration. ]
Linda P January 31, 2012 at 12:44 PM
I agree with Mr. Stamm completely. Low turnout elections typically held in Feb and May have more controllable outcomes by candidates and governments/school boards so they prefer them. I prefer to leave decisions in the hands of the greatest numbers of voters we can muster which is always in November. You will notice that mileage increases are usually on non November ballots because low voter turnout usually packed with tax supporters win.
Wes Borucki March 20, 2012 at 12:04 PM
I agree with you, Alan -- what's more disturbing now is the adoption of six-year terms. Shorter terms should be maintained for more accountability to the people. The only other examples I can think of where office holders have or had six-year terms: the United States Senate, which is supposed to be a more collegial body sitting beside the House with its two-year terms, and Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy, who just happened to be fighting a war. The school board fits neither of those descriptions.


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