A proposed change in election law in Arkansas designed to consolidate school district elections with November general elections appears to have no friends locally.
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 has yet to make it to the House floor, according to State Representative Brent Talley, D-McCaskill, who opposes the bill.
School superintendents, a school board president, a county elections commissioner, and the Hempstead County Clerk all oppose the bill, essentially for the same reason: it will create confusion and will shift election costs.
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.
Hempstead County Clerk Sandra Rodgers said the change to the November election date will create a nightmare for her office.
“The question would be how it will affect districts like Mineral Springs that are in more than one county,” Rodgers said. “Where would those people vote in the general election?”
Split ballots created by such districts will also increase costs, which the bill already shifts to counties, she said.
“The ballot styles you have would be a problem,” Rodgers said. “We already have problems with election workers understanding how to deal with split ballots, and this would create more. I hope they kill it.”
She said she has been in contact with Talley, and he has voiced his opposition to the bill.
Hempstead County Elections Commissioner Scott Brown believes election expenses would mushroom because of the split ballot questions involved.
“We do an election at a very minimum cost to save money,” Brown said. “So, it would have to be added to the election budget; but, we'll just have to live with what they give us.”
Hope School Board President Joe Short, an attorney, agrees that the split ballot issue will create a multitude of problems in administering elections if SB587 becomes law.
“The biggest problem with putting everything in one election cycle is the various discrepancies between the districts,” Short said. “I don't see how the county clerks are going to do it.”
Page 2 of 2 - He said in Hope alone, where there will be seven school board zones in November, none of those zones are identical to any other election district, whether city or county; so, a problem arises when there are portions of two school zones in one county or city voting precinct, where do the school election patrons vote? Do they vote in the school election where they reside, or where the general election is held?
School superintendents also argue the larger issues of voter turnout and whether there is a need for any change.
“It's a solution searching for a problem,” Hope School Superintendent Bobby Hart said. “I don't think it is going to serve the school districts well at all.”
He said the change in the election cycle will force new school board members into the job before they're fully trained, as required by state law.
“If you elect in November, then in your December meeting would be the first meeting, perhaps, that a newly elected member would be at, and January and February are evaluation and rehiring periods,” Hart said. “That's not helpful because someone could come in with the idea of getting at a particular superintendent.”
New school board members who take office in September after current elections have more time to obtain the certification training they need, as well, he said.
Hart said the legislation is not what Arkansas schools need at the moment.
“Public schools in Arkansas work,” he said. “Are we perfect? No. But, what we have done in the last 10 years since the Lakeview case, we have seen our public schools improve. There is a measure of society ready to swing the pendulum back to when we said, 'We're No. 49 and thank God for Mississippi.'”
Hart said both Talley and State Senator Larry Teague, D-Nashville, have worked diligently to protect public schools.
“Both of them have done a fantastic job,” he said.
Blevins Schools Superintendent Billy Lee agrees that the change will shortchange newly elected school board members, but he also fears it will hurt voter turnout.
“A lot of school elections do not have very good turnout, anyway, unless there is a millage,” Lee said.
He said Blevins is a rural school district with a scattered population, and most school board elections draw only 20-30 votes per board zone at best.