Education, Law & Principles

Senate votes to move school-board elections to November

March 23, 2023

Ray Carter

Saying the extremely low voter turnout in odd-timed spring elections has often untethered school board members from the parents they are supposed to serve, members of the Oklahoma Senate have voted to move those elections to the November general-election ballot.

“I’m running this bill to increase voter turnout,” said state Sen. Ally Seifried, R-Claremore. “The communities support our schools, our public schools. The taxpayers in the district support (them). And so I want to give them the opportunity to take part in these elections.”

Senate Bill 244, by Seifried, 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.

Seifried noted turnout in school-board elections, typically held on obscure spring dates, is extremely low. Only 3.67 percent of eligible voters turned out for a recent school-board election in Claremore, while 3.3 percent turned out for a race in Owasso.

That low turnout came despite efforts to boost awareness and participation. Seifried said the secretary of her local county election board sent out 27,000 calls and 1,800 texts for the recent Feb. 14 school-board election, but it still drew only 519 people.

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

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) opposed SB 244, 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 that 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.”

State Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, urged lawmakers to reject the bill, noting school-board elections were last shifted in 2019. She said officials should wait to observe how that impacts voter turnout in school-board races in years five and beyond.

“I don’t feel like we have clear data yet,” Kirt said. “We’ve already made a pretty big change.”

State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, said she worried about having nonpartisan school-board races on the same ballot as “polarizing” partisan races such as governor or president, and said the current model “is the best mechanism for making sure that we have consistent local control, locally engaged voters who are concerned about either their city or their school boards showing up to vote in those elections.”

But supporters of the bill said there is little true local control with the low voter turnout produced by the current system. In some cases, they said that disconnect can produce serious harm in a community.

“You go look at voter turnout and who’s turning out, there’s a reason why—and by design—they are not showing up to vote. The kingdom-building has to stop.” —State Sen. David Bullard

State Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, recalled having “parents, teachers, coaches, school-board members, sitting in my living room talking about how the system failed them and didn’t listen to them when they reported abuse of their kiddos” by a school staff member over a period of 15 years.

He said one possible reason that parents were ignored is because the school board is disconnected from the public, due in part to an election process that involves few parents.

“The very individuals that the community elect to represent their values and select a superintendent that reflects those values and the priorities of the community, a lot of the community didn’t even know who they were,” Jett said.

By scheduling school-board elections at odd times of the year that depress voter awareness and turnout, he said the current system is “actually intentionally skirting the accountability that this system was designed to fulfill.”

State Sen. David Bullard, a Durant Republican who is a former teacher, also urged lawmakers to shift school-board elections to November.

“Right now when you look at school-board elections across this state, you go look at voter turnout and who’s turning out, there’s a reason why—and by design—they are not showing up to vote,” Bullard said. “You have to ask yourself the question, ‘Why would you want to have an election and keep an election in a time in a place of their choosing where people won’t show up?’ The kingdom-building has to stop.”

Independent research has validated many of the complaints noted by supporters of SB 244.

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.”

Seifried said having to campaign during a general-election period would force school-board candidates to engage more with voters, just as legislative candidates do.

“My journey here was difficult just like, I’m sure, many of you, but I’m a better person standing here today because of the actions I took,” Seifried said. “I had to get out and talk to the community and listen and engage, and I want those same things for our school-board members.”

SB 244 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 31-15 vote. It now proceeds to the Oklahoma House of Representatives.