Education would improve in Idaho if the state moved its school board elections from May to November, Coeur d’Alene Sen. Mary Souza told a Senate committee Friday. The move would give them more visibility and draw more voter participation, she said.
The committee approved Souza’s bill on a party-line vote, with just two minority Democrats dissenting. To become law, the bill still would need to pass the full Senate and House and receive the governor’s signature.
“The motivation for this now three-year effort to move the date is to increase voter turnout, and that is really important,” Souza told the Senate State Affairs Committee. Souza said parent, family and community involvement in schools “correlates with higher academic performance and school improvement.”
Souza originally proposed moving school board elections to the November general election in even-numbered years – the same time as partisan elections for president, governor, the state Legislature and more. But school board members both in Coeur d’Alene and across the state strongly opposed having their non-partisan elections moved into that mix.
This year, Souza proposed a compromise she reached with the Idaho School Boards Association – moving the elections to the November general election date in odd-numbered years, which is when Idaho holds non-partisan city elections.
“School boards, we believe, are very important,” Souza said. “They spend millions in taxpayer dollars. They set school board policies. And they hire superintendents who then run the district. … They have a direct impact on the quality of the education in the district, and we want the community to be more involved with choosing the right people to do the job.”
Souza listed off low turnout levels for a number of Idaho school districts in recent years – all coming in at less than 5 percent turnout.
Caldwell School District Superintendent Shalene French spoke in support of the bill. “School board trustees provide valuable leadership to their communities, yet voter turnout during trustee elections in Caldwell has been disheartening,” she said. Often only 250 or 300 voters out of 5,000 who are registered in a trustee zone in her district have cast ballots, she said.
The bill, French said, “we believe … will increase voter turnout, create a greater community sense of awareness and more interest in the trustee position’s influence on the children of the community. Their leadership affects schools and communities, and strong leadership results in strong schools.”
Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane spoke against the bill, saying it poses problems for county clerks running elections, because school trustee zones don’t follow voting precinct lines used in city elections. “To Sen. Souza’s credit, she truly is trying to work with all parties,” he said. But he said an earlier version of the bill would have worked better for counties – it eliminated school board trustee elections by zone, instead having them run district-wide. That would solve the problem for county clerks, he said.
Harold Ott, speaking for the Idaho School Administrators Association, also spoke against the bill, saying it puts newly elected school board members in the position of immediately having to weigh in on evaluations of superintendents, which come due in January.
Chad Houck of the Idaho Secretary of State’s office said the office is neutral on the bill, but that when Idaho consolidated its elections, it tried to set a major group of them on each of the four election dates in November, March, May and August. School board elections are now the main elections that occur in May of odd-numbered years, he said; if they’re moved, just a smattering of special district elections would be held on that date.
Souza told the senators, “As you have heard from the testimony, change is hard. … I believe that the school boards will adjust and will make the change. I believe the county clerks are a very professional group and they will find ways to adjust to this. … Let’s keep the kids in mind, please.”
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