There’s nothing like a hotly contested presidential election to energize voters. It’s the same with a spirited race for a United States Senate seat. In Minnesota, that combination led to 79.96% of registered voters casting ballots in 2020, the best in the nation.
It’s a common trend in even-year elections. But in odd-numbered election years like 2021, it’s not likely the trend will continue. The lure of the few municipal election contests and a spattering of school district ballot questions usually don’t draw big numbers to the polls.
We hope that trend can be softened on Tuesday, Nov. 2. According to the Minnesota Secretary of State Office and the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA), 37 school districts will offer board elections to fill vacancies. Another 42 school districts will ask voters to authorize bonds for school facility needs and/or operating levy authority to support local general fund programs.
Historical data to support strong voter turnout is not encouraging. Over the past two odd-number school district election cycles, the MSBA says voter turnout for school board elections averaged 17-19%. When levies or bonds are on the ballot, the turnout grows to 60% on average. In even-numbered years when all but 29 of the state’s 332 school districts have board elections, turnout can be as high as 85%, MSBA says.
But voters should not be fooled by perceptions that this year’s school elections are not important. Adams Publishing/ECM readers living in Upsala, Aitkin, St. Michael-Albertville, North Branch, Burnsville, Lakeville, Eden Prairie, Caledonia, Princeton, Anoka-Hennepin, Cambridge-Isanti, Fridley and Monticello will have school district ballot questions Nov. 2 for board members and/or funding requests.
Voters in the Upsala School District will not be voting on a school board member, but will be asked to pass a bond referendum to provide additional funding for security and safety upgrades, as well as upgrades to the facility’s HVAC system, roofs, elementary classrooms and the bus garage.
Financial questions that come before voters also deserve thought and evaluation. Before voting up or down on a bond or operating levy, voters need to understand the ramifications of the decision. Will the defeat of a financial question create harm in terms of larger class sizes, staff layoffs and a general decline in the capabilities of a district to deliver a quality education? Will a “Yes” vote bring true positive impacts in how a district carries out its educational mission? School district administrative teams must be challenged to present detailed plans about the pros and cons of any financial issue to be decided by voters.
The number of school board vacancies is alarming. MSBA counts 37 districts that must fill one or more school board seats. Sixty-eight board members have resigned from their posts early. That compares to 12 to 20 on average, MSBA says. Some of the resignations are for normal reasons: moving from the district, job commitments and health concerns to name a few.
But for some, their departure can be traced to heated national politics that have spilled down to local contests. Amid the pandemic, many have bowed out under the weight of outrage from community members fighting mask mandates, virus vaccination recommendations, online learning and debate over teaching revised state curriculum standards for social studies, another hot-button issue.
So, what should voters do?
In deciding school board contests, we believe voters need to determine the candidates that will best serve their school district throughout their term. We believe the best candidates have a broad-based platform that deals with a well-researched study of district educational needs and a commitment to ensure student safety, not those who have a special interest or even a single issue.
Tuesday, Nov. 2, is an important day for many communities as voters fill school board seats and decide revenue needs for years to come. Don’t let the odd-number decline in voter participation be a continued trend. Get to know your candidates, understand the financial questions and then vote.
— An editorial from the APG of East Central Minnesota Editorial Board. Reactions are welcome. Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org.