A new law that moves school board elections to November during even-numbered years has been on the books for more than a month and a half, but members of the Birmingham Board of Education are still worried about its implications.
"This is a game-changer," said school board member Geri Rinschler at the board's meeting Jan. 17, noting that school board elections will now be held at the same time as presidential and gubernatorial elections.
The new law was officially passed Nov. 29 and went into effect Jan. 1. The law has since been touted by Gov. Rick Snyder and its supporters in the Legislature as a way to save school districts money. According to release from the governor's office, the move could save some school districts upwards of $8 million over a two-year election cycle.
"Utilizing a standard election cycle will cut administrative costs and help schools maintain focus on educating students," Snyder said. "This change also allows for more consolidated elections, so voters have the best opportunity to make their voices heard."
School districts have had the option of conducting school board elections in May or November during odd-numbered years since 2004.
Birmingham schools was one of the districts that took advantage of the option. Trustees Christopher Conti and Robert Lawrence were recently re-elected to four-year terms during the November 2011 election. Trustee Lori Soifer was also first elected during an odd year — 2005.
At the Tuesday night meeting, board members agreed that the move isn't in the best interests of those looking to run for local school boards. Running during a presidential or gubertorial election is expensive, Rinschler pointed out, and often, school board candidates are shoved to the end of the ballot, where they're forgotten, she said.
In an interview with MLive, however, Kalamazoo County Clerk Tim Snow said the number of people who don't fill out the entire ballot will be offset by more people at the polls.
During the latest school board election in November 2011 — on a ballot shared with nine City Commission candidates and a school millage — Laura Broski said there were 2,771 ballots filled out that day, a 26 percent turnout rate. During the 2008 presidential election, meanwhile, more than 12,000 ballots were cast in Birmingham, a 79 percent voter turnout.
What was most distressing for school board members Tuesday night, however, was the potential for partisan politics to begin influencing school board elections.
"I've always been proud that we're independent," Rinschler said.
Superintendent David Larson said the school board will hold a special study session at 7 p.m. Jan. 31 to look closely at the issue of school board elections. Topics to be discussed include term lengths of current board members, and feedback will be solicited from community members.