People have a tendency to give any job in the public sector that requires election the noble-sounding tag of “public service.” In most cases, voters would question whether that service is worth the money taxpayers fork over for it.
One class of elected public servants, though, more than earns its keep – members of the state’s school boards, who earn nothing for their service. It’s just difficult to find members of the public who seem to care.
Several Delaware school districts held elections last week. If you didn’t realize that, you’re not alone. Turnout in most was abysmal, just as it always is.
In Appoquinimink, an at-large seat drew four contenders, who split the grand total of 758 votes.
Colonial School District asked voters whether to spend $2 million to build a pair of athletic fields at William Penn High School. The proposal failed 319-239, a total of 558 votes. William Penn sporting events, even on their old fields, routinely draw bigger crowds.
The only district in which voters “flocked” to the polls was Red Clay, where Faith Newton defeated board President Jack Buckley 1,427-1,132. That’s still a pretty small flock – around 3 percent of eligible voters.
Explanations for this tend toward the obvious: The elections are held in May rather than November and candidates run without party affiliations listed, supposedly reducing partisanship and keeping the elections “pure” in some fashion. Those involved in politics, especially Republicans, claim the elections are anything but non-partisan, pointing to the cash the state teachers’ union pours into them, but the rules have had at least part of their intended effect – in 30 years of voting in such elections, I’ve never known or cared which party the candidates I voted for belonged to.
I’m sure those factors work to suppress voter turnout, and I wouldn’t oppose moving the elections to November (though I would hesitate to list party affiliations). But my explanation for the disinterest centers not on the voters but on the Delaware media.
Each of the four school districts in northern New Castle County operates on an annual budget exceeding the budget of the City of Wilmington, which is about $140 million annually. Christina, the state’s largest district by population, runs on a budget of more than $240 million. Yet The News Journal, Delaware’s dominant newspaper, assigns one or two reporters to cover not just those four districts, but all 19 in the state.
Wilmington certainly is important – in everything but government, it’s the de facto capital of the state – so it naturally gets a reporter all its own. The question, though, is why. The city has about 66,000 residents, fewer than any of the school districts. Granted, with 13 city council members and not much work to keep them from getting into mischief, it’s easier for reporters to find examples of cupidity, stupidity and greed in Wilmington than in the school districts.
That leaves the role of school-district watchdog to a relative handful of citizen journalists and activists who pore over budgets trying to keep tabs on where the money is spent. Arguments about educational philosophies and practices play out mostly among teachers and administrators, as well as in PTA meetings; only rarely do they air among the public at large.
Moving elections to November and listing party affiliations behind the names on the ballots might increase voter participation, but at what cost? Issues before school boards rarely correspond to those contested between Democrats and Republicans in legislatures, especially because district spending increases are the only issues we put before the public for referendums. Once the Tea Party starts running school board candidates, the rest of us will be glad non-partisanship prevails.
The only good answer for the voter ennui is more information. And only new media – Town Square Delaware, for example – can give it to them.