Ray Carter | April 3, 2024

Parents rally for school-board election change

Ray Carter

When school-board elections were held April 2, the results continued a longstanding trend in Oklahoma: Few voters knew there were any elections underway and school leaders across the state were selected by a small sliver of voters who may not represent the broader community, including most parents.

A day later, parents from across Oklahoma rallied at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to shift school-board races to a November general-election ballot that will produce far greater input from the public.

“The community is not being engaged,” said Angela Cozort, a Tulsa County mother. “There’s not enough discussion from the schools and promotion of the school-board elections. It’s almost as if they’re trying to be suppressed.”

“The way the school-board elections are currently structured, it completely denies most people the opportunity to vote and have a true, valid election,” said Julie Collier, a public-school teacher who took the day off to attend the rally.

The rally, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity–Oklahoma, gave parents and grandparents the opportunity to meet with lawmakers and urge them to support legislation that would move school-board elections and boost turnout.

Senate Bill 244, by state Sen. Ally Seifried (pictured above), 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.

SB 244 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 31-15 vote last year. It is still eligible to receive a vote in a House committee.

Seifried, R-Claremore, noted the “abysmal numbers” from this week’s school-board elections and said policymakers should make it easier for parents to know when those races are on the ballot by placing them on a regular election date.

“I know that parents know what’s best for kids,” Seifried said.

Voter Turnout Is Abysmal

Lawmakers who support the change cited a string of depressing stats from this week’s school-board races.

In a Deer Creek school-board election, “the winner was chosen because they got 197 votes,” noted state Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, an Elgin Republican who worked for 19 years as a teacher and serves as the House author of SB 244.

The winner of the school-board election in Cache received 275 votes. In Elgin, a school-board member was elected with 308 votes. Both schools are 5A districts, Hasenbeck noted.

In Oklahoma City, one of the state’s largest districts by enrollment, a school-board member was elected after receiving just 233 votes.

In the Tulsa Union district, there were 146 total votes cast in one race and the winner was selected by 92 voters. In Tulsa, one race drew just 649 votes with only 425 votes cast for the winner.

“This has to change,” said state Rep. Chris Banning, a Bixby Republican who authored similar school-board legislation this year.

Banning noted that spending in Oklahoma public schools totaled $12.3 billion after accounting for all state, local, and federal dollars. That’s more money than what state lawmakers appropriate each year to all government agencies, he noted.

“We have 2,366 school-board members controlling more than the House of Representatives appropriated in 2022,” Banning said. “… These are important elections.”

The turnout for the April 2 school-board elections was comparable to prior-year figures.

When Bradley Ward, the deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity–Oklahoma, reviewed turnout for the April 5, 2022, school-board elections, he found that it averaged less than 4 percent statewide.

In contrast, the November 2022 elections, which included statewide races such as governor, drew 50.35 percent of voters. In November 2020, when the presidential race topped the ballot, 69.34 percent of voters turned out.

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.”

That creates political incentives that may not align with the best interests of students, the report suggested.

“Intuitively, elected officials have less incentive to respond to the needs of constituents who account for a smaller share of their electorate, all else equal,” researchers stated.

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.”

Many parents believe the current system, which deters public participation in school elections, needs to be replaced with one that facilitates greater parental involvement.

“It’s really important that the voter turnout is there,” said Leah Hull, a Tulsa parent and former teacher. “Because we heard the numbers. Families are really busy during the normal time for school-board elections so moving it to a more concerted time would, I think, just get better turnout.”

Shelly Gwartney, a mother who ran for school board in the Union district in 2022, lost that race by a margin of only 121 votes out of 1,253 that were cast.

While the 1,253 votes in that race were only a fraction of registered voters in the district, Gwartney noted that was still a high-turnout election by school-board standards.

In contrast, this year’s school-board race in the Union district, which occurred April 2, drew just 146 voters.

“The winner had 92 votes,” Gwartney said. “That’s not representation.”

John Tidwell, Americans for Prosperity–Oklahoma state director, said the rally helped highlight the fact that education policy is about families first.

“Today’s rally was important as we continue to keep parent voices at the center of the education debate,” Tidwell said. “We cannot allow policymakers to feel as if they’ve ‘done enough’ for education freedom.”

Tax-Funded Lobbyists Oppose Reform

Those who have benefitted from low-turnout elections have paid lobbyists to oppose the legislation.

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) opposed SB 244 last year, claiming, “Voters may be less informed about school board candidates if they appear on a general election ballot.” Despite the likelihood of much greater voter participation, the OSSBA also claimed the bill “isn’t about making schools better for students” and could “lead to less meaningful conversation about local education issues because of crowded general election ballots and partisan politics that tend to dominate fall elections.”

Schools use taxpayer dollars to join OSSBA, meaning school officials use parents’ taxpayer money to pay OSSBA lobbyists to oppose parent bills like SB 244.

But Hasenbeck said the idea of moving school-board elections to a November general-election ballot should not be controversial.

“The more people we get to the polls,” Hasenbeck said, “the better off we are.”

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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