Proposed legislation which would unify the election date for school board elections with the November general election each year appears to have raised more questions that it answers, but is on its way to becoming law.
Senate Bill 587, as amended, sponsored by Senator Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, passed the Senate and is set for consideration in the Arkansas House of Representatives this week, but it has received mixed support from Southwest Arkansas legislators.
Both State Representative Brent Talley, D-McCaskill, and State Senator Larry Teague, D-Nashville, have expressed reservations regarding the bill. Sen. Teague voted against it in Senate consideration. State Senator Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, voted in favor of the bill in the Senate's passage of it.
Hickey was not available for comment regarding the bill at press time Thursday.
The bill makes four specific changes in Arkansas schools election law:
--The date for all regular school board elections is changed from the third Tuesday in September to the general election date on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November of each year.
--The bill specifically incorporates a provision which has been previously adhered to by school boards as part of general election law concerning the continued service of school board members where no qualified successor has been elected to replace them.
--The bill allows for separate ballots for school board elections apart from the general election ballot.
--The bill mandates that county election commissions are responsible for all costs for regular school board elections, excluding poll worker costs; but, requires school districts to pay for all costs associated with special school elections.
Talley and Teague see problems in the making.
“I am not supportive of SB587 in its current form,” Talley said Wednesday. “It has several issues of concern, in my opinion.”
Among the concerns for both lawmakers is the split ballot concept, which creates a difficulty for county clerks and election commissions, since general election law requires that school districts which are part of more than one county must conduct their elections in the county in which the district is administered, according to the Association of Arkansas Counties.
“By law, voters must cast their ballot in the county that their school district is administered in,” AAC spokesman Scott Perkins said Wednesday. “We call these school districts fringe districts because they span into more than one county.”
Talley doesn't like that circumstance.
“One of my concerns is the difference in the districts for elections and the school district areas that would be covered on a ballot,” he said.
Teague said that he has never been comfortable with the concept of SB587, but he doesn't recall any real opposition to it from school board members or school superintendents.
Page 2 of 2 - “I recall some emails and phone conversations with county clerks from around the state regarding high costs and difficulties in getting it all together,” he said.
The AAC opposes the bill, according to Perkins.
“First, and foremost, we think counties should not be asked to bear the cost of school elections, and yes, we see this bill as a potential unfunded mandate if it passes,” he said. “Most counties are struggling in revenue and increased expenses only compounds the issue.”
Perkins also notes that while voters in such districts already drive elsewhere to vote in school elections, the AAC thinks the added inconvenience on general election day in November will hurt voter turnout.
“Yes, they would regularly have to drive to their school district's polling places in September,” he said. “It's simply that some voters may have to go to different polling sites on the same day.”
The Arkansas School Boards Association agrees, and argues that confusion will result because of overlapping boundaries, according to ASBA spokesperson Suellen Vann.
“School district boundaries often overlap municipal and county boundaries,” Vann said. “This would create a huge challenge for county election commissions at the same time as the general election.”
Part of the problem, according to Vann, is that, as Arkansas moves toward completely electronic voting, the change will require starting from scratch, in many instances.
“Electronic voting machines have limitations on the number of ballot types which may be programmed,” she said. “This limitation might cause school candidates and millage issues to be set up on a separate ballot, as provided by this bill, causing confusion and additional costs for counties with many more ballots to print for the November election than September election.”