Saturday, January 10, 2009

Improving Shurtleff's school board election bill

Now that the governor is sworn in, the Legislature will soon be in full swing. Hearings will begin and there will be a flurry of activity concerning the hundreds of bills being proposed for this legislative session.

One of the more important bills affecting Concord is Rep. Steve Shurtleff's bill, HB33, changing the way the city elects members to the Concord Board of Education.
Currently, three school board members are elected each year to serve a three-year term each. The nine members all run at-large, meaning city-wide, in both even and odd years. Shurtleff's bill proposes to have school board members be elected from three legislative districts. So, instead of running city-wide, candidates would forward themselves from their district and run across three city wards. Each year, a single candidate would be elected from each ward to serve a three-year term.
If approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the plan would take affect in the 2011 election cycle. The bill text is here: ["HB 33"] and I'm told the first hearing for the bill is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 14, in Room 301 of the Legislative Office Building in the Municipal and County Government Committee.

In previous posts, I have had mixed feelings about the plan: ["Rep. Shurtleff's school board plan"] and been called out for not really having an opinion.

After talking to Steve via email and waiting to actually see the language of the bill, I've reached some conclusions about it. There are negatives and positives about it and there is at least one change to the bill which I think would improve the bill substantially.

Running city-wide is a difficult thing to do. So, lowering the threshold of election but running in three wards should make it easier for regular folks to get involved in the process. Since the election would be more manageable, more people will probably run.
Running on the district level vs. at-large also ensures that every neighborhood of the city is represented on the school board. While it is not a problem now - the new board is quite diverse - it has been a problem in the past. Some people in Concord have complained that their elementary schools were not being paid attention to because school board members came from only a couple of school district areas. Even though it is not a problem now, it could be in the future. This bill would eliminate that problem.

On the negative side, some feel that if school board members are elected by district, they will be worried about their own local elementary schools and not the city as a whole. While there is some legitimate concern here, I don't think it is enough to kill the bill. Board members would still have to consider the entire system on the middle and high school level. Not unlike ward city councilors who concentrate on local issues but think about the entire city, district school board members will think about the entire city, while also focusing locally.
Also on the negative side is the "winner-take-all" aspect of the proposal. Currently, voters get to choose as many as three candidates each year. With Shurtleff's proposal, voters in one district will only get to vote for one candidate. I'm of the feeling that we need more choices and we need voters to feel empowered. This proposal would limit each individual voter's preference to one instead of three.

One thing the bill does not address at all is the issue of how many votes it takes to get elected to the school board in differing years. Currently, some board members get elected with thousands more votes than others.
For example, in 2007 the three winners of board seats won with between 1,901 and 2,814 votes. A year later, the winners received between 6,480 and 7,086. The difference in votes is based on turnout. One year was a city election; the other a presidential election. But the difference in turnout is staggering because, essentially, thousands more people determined the outcome of who won than the previous year. Granted, if voters don't bother to vote, then they cost themselves representation. But still, the fact that one year it only takes 2,000 votes to win and another year it takes more than 6,000 is a serious problem which needs to be fixed.

In balancing the negatives and positives, it is clear that Shurtleff's school board election bill could be improved by making two small changes.
First, keep the change to districts, but instead of running every three years, have the board members run every two years like district city councilors. This would fix the disproportionate voter turnout issue. It would also probably boost turnout in city year elections, since voters would know that they would only be able to cast votes in school board races every two years.
Second, after making the change to two years, elect three board members from each district. This would eliminate the winner-take-all aspect of Shurtleff's bill and guarantee that voters in each district were able to vote for as many as three candidates, as they do now at-large.
If these changes are made, the bill will be improved and will make great changes to how we elect Concord's school board members.


Anonymous said...

Kudos to Steve Shurtleff. This bill is long overdue. In the midst of a depression now is not the time for school board to be spending millions on a project with a questionable outcome educationally.

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