Ray Carter | April 4, 2024

Local voters can choose president but not school board?

Ray Carter

As Oklahoma state lawmakers debate legislation that would move school-board elections to a November general-election ballot, opponents have advanced an unusual argument.

They say that while local voters may be qualified to cast a vote for president of the United States, they are not qualified to select school-board members in their own community.

In a Feb. 10 email sent to lawmakers on the House Elections and Ethics Committee, the Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC), declared, “Many voters in a general election are not tuned in to the needs of the school district and may not have researched the candidates to know their stance on issues impacting our children.”

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association opposed a measure filed in 2023 that would have shifted school-board elections to November, claiming that shift could lead to “a less informed electorate regarding school board candidates.”

During recent debate on another bill to shift school-board elections to a general ballot, state Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber, declared that higher-turnout general elections draw “a lot of non-informed voters.”

When a similar bill was debated in 2021, then-state Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso, expressed a similar view.

“As always when something like this comes up, I go talk to school community leaders that I trust—current school-board members,” Dossett said. “They have concerns that there will be a larger, uninformed voter (group) making the decision. And I guess, honestly, they like lower turnout with a higher-informed voter.”

The number of voters being dismissed as too uninformed to choose school-board members but wholly qualified to select the President of the United States is staggering. In many instances, opponents of moving school-board elections are effectively claiming just one out of every 100 presidential voters is qualified to choose school-board members.

For example, in the recent April 2 election for a seat on the Broken Bow school board, only 36 votes were cast. Matt Giles prevailed over J.W. Brantly by a margin of 22 to 14. A shift of only four votes would have produced a tie, and a shift of five votes would have reversed the outcome.

The 36 votes cast in the Broken Bow school-board race is in stark contrast to the 3,309 votes cast in those same precincts during the November 2020 general election.

Rural communities are not the only places where unusually timed school-board elections have produced anemic turnout that is only the smallest fraction of the numbers generated during regularly scheduled general elections.

In the suburban Union district in Tulsa County, a school board race drew only 146 votes on April 2. Those same precincts cast at least 5,546 votes during the November 2020 general election.

In the Tulsa district, one school-board election drew just 649 votes this week. Those same precincts cast at least 4,307 votes in November 2020.

Senate Bill 244, by state Sen. Ally Seifried, R-Claremore, and state Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin, would place school-board elections on the November general-election ballot. The legislation also reduces the length of the term served by a school-board member on a five-person board from five years to four years.

The bill passed out of the Senate last year and remains eligible for a vote in a House committee this year.

Advocates of the change say it would increase community input into local-school management since more voters would be involved.

Research backs up that claim and indicates Oklahoma’s current system effectively cuts parents out of the loop.

Research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in January 2020 reviewed data from four states, including Oklahoma. Among other things, researchers found that “the majority of voters in a typical school board election in each of the four states we examine is ‘unlikely’ to have children.”

The working paper noted that “moving school board elections on-cycle, to coincide with higher-turnout national elections, is likely to significantly boost the political representation of households with children and increase the racial diversity of the electorate.”

Opponents of shifting school-board elections to the general-election ballot have tacitly admitted that it will increase public awareness of the elections because the shift will require school-board candidates to actively reach out to voters.

In addition to arguing that general election voters are uninformed, opponents have also complained that moving the elections would require school-board candidates to better inform more voters of their stances on school issues.

Due to the need to communicate with voters during a general election, the OSSBA said that school board races “will be more expensive” if SB 244 becomes law. OSSBA argues that is too much to ask of the people who will be running local schools and approving millions in spending each year, saying that there will be “a bigger time and financial commitment” for those who seek election to school boards.

But state Rep. Chris Banning, a Bixby Republican who filed legislation this year to shift school-board elections to November, recently noted that the 2,366 school-board members serving statewide oversee $12.3 billion in total school funding from all sources, state, local, and federal.

“These are important elections,” Banning said.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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