Coeur d’Alene Sen. Mary Souza’s bill to move school board elections from May of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years – to coincide with big elections like those for president and governor – was the target of multiple amendments in the Senate today. But in the end, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking’s amendment to shift the elections to November of odd-numbered years – the same time as non-partisan city elections – was defeated in a divided vote, and a half-dozen other amendments proposed by Democratic senators to add motor voter, vote-by-mail and other voting access provisions to the bill were ruled out as not germane.
Only Souza’s own amendment, to remove a change the bill had made in the annual meeting date for each school district from July to February of each year, carried. Now, the amended bill still must be considered in the Senate.
SB 1103 drew opposition in committee on Monday from the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho Association of Counties. They said having school board members take office in January, in the middle of the school year and budget year, would disrupt everything from budgeting and policy-setting for the school year to annual evaluations for superintendents. “Having trustees take office on Jan. 1 simply does not work with the school schedule,” said Karen Echeverria, ISBA executive director.
Rob Winslow, IASA executive director, told the Senate Education Committee, “The fiscal year actually starts July through June. … Setting the budget in February will be challenging, since the Legislature obviously has not set appropriations for the coming fiscal year at that time.”
Opponents also expressed concerns that Souza’s bill would push non-partisan school board races into the biggest partisan elections; drive up county election costs by making longer ballots; and create other problems. The bill also calls on school districts to align their trustee zones to general election precincts, but school districts already are required to divide their zones by equal population, not precinct lines. “Precincts do not necessarily need to meet any population requirements,” Echeverria said.
She said, “We believe that trustee elections will indeed get lost on that ballot and voters will be more concerned with voting for the president, the governor, congressmen and state legislators.”
Souza argued that her bill would increase turnout in school elections. “There is absolutely no effort to make it a partisan election,” she said. “In fact, increasing voter turnout is a nonpartisan effort. … You will get more people voting, which means more people of all sorts of views will come out.”
Souza presented the committee with emails from several North Idaho residents supporting the change, including former Coeur d’Alene school board member Brent Regan, Coeur d’Alene City Councilman Dan Gookin and current North Idaho College trustee Todd Banducci. Banducci noted that NIC trustee elections already are on the November ballot, as are non-partisan judge races. “I think this will increase the visibility and participation in these elections as it does for the other non-partisan races,” he wrote.
Ward-Engelking said moving school trustee elections onto the November election ballot would result in “voter fatigue” and many voters, as they went through the lengthy ballots, wouldn’t even get to the school board races at the end. She said moving them to the November odd-year elections, at which mayors and city councils are elected, still would increase turnout, but without mixing school board votes with big partisan races. “I think this is a really good compromise to make sure that we get more people voting for our trustees,” she said.
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, who is co-sponsoring SB 1103 with Souza, said only city residents vote in those elections, so it wouldn’t be a good fit with school districts, which extend outside cities.
Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, said the Democratic senators felt their proposed amendments allowing vote-by-mail, options to register for vote when applying for a driver’s license, opportunities for online voting, and increased early-voting opportunities were relevant to Souza’s bill because they also were aimed at increasing voter turnout.
“Down-ballot elections can get lost in a big election year,” she said. “These are issues we’ve worked on for a long time in terms of improving access to voting. We’ve had no way to bring those up.”
Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, said the Senate proceedings were “respectful” and gave the Democrats an opportunity to bring up the issues, even though the amendments ultimately failed.