February 16, 2013

Snow, shameful apathy blamed for low voter turnout in last week's school board elections

School board elections are not flashy. The work is tough, the pay is negligible, but those who volunteer to run and serve deserve our attention and participation. 
 -- Brent Hensley, President and General Manager, KOCO-TV, Oklahoma City

 A campaign sign for newly-elected Oklahoma City School Board Chair Lynne Hardin sits in the snow on election day, February 12. Voter turnout was especially low across the state and some blamed the snow.

It snowed in Oklahoma on Tuesday, making voter turnout for local school board elections lower than already expected. According to the Oklahoma County Election Board, only 5 percent of registered voters in the Oklahoma City Public School District showed up to vote. Low numbers were reported all across the state from Chickasha to Fanshaw to Edmond.

The Chickasha News Express called the turnout "shameful apathy" while the Scissor Tales column in The Oklahoman gave the elections a "failing grade."

Here are some of the reasons why school board elections are just as important as city council elections, which historically have a much higher voter turnout.

The public school system is a primary economic engine. When this engine is weak it hurts the real estate market and businesses. Oklahoma needs a strong workforce and it starts with early childhood education. 

Kids Are Our Future  
According to the Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Center, nearly 25 percent of the population in every county in Oklahoma is comprised of children. In some cases, the number is higher than 25 percent. These kids are Oklahoma's future business leaders, employees, community volunteers and voters. All of us will be impacted by the education they receive. That education is the responsibility of local school boards.

School boards don't have direct taxing authority, but they do receive a lot of tax dollars. Governor Fallin's proposed Executive Budget for 2013 is $6.6 billion and $3.4 billion of it is allocated to education.

This does not include the millions of dollars collected every year via property taxes. These tax dollars pay for local services in Oklahoma more than any other source. Property taxes especially help pay for public schools. School boards decide how to spend your tax dollars.

School boards are accountable only to voters.

Do school boards really impact student achievement? 
According to The Center for Public Education, they do. They list eight characteristics of effective school boards.

1. Effective school boards commit to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction and define clear goals toward that vision.

2. Effective school boards have strong shared beliefs and values about what is possible for students and their ability to learn, and of the system and its ability to teach all children at high levels.

3. Effective school boards are accountability driven, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement.

4. Effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals.

5. Effective boards are data savvy; they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.

6. Effective school boards align and sustain resources, such as professional development, to meet district goals.

7. Effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.

8. Effective school boards take part in team development and training, sometimes with their superintendents, to build shared knowledge, values and commitments for their improvement efforts.

What does this have to do with the arts?
School boards impact policies in regard to arts education. The following are some questions  arts advocates can ask candidates running for school board. Keep these in mind for the future. There's also no reason why you can't use them to open up the conversation about arts education with newly-elected school board members in your city or town.

What is your opinion of your district's current approach to a complete education that includes the arts?

What role do you think the arts can play in supporting key priorities of the district such as reducing the dropout rate, closing the achievement gap, and preparing more students for college eligibility and/or meaningful careers?

How will you balance the need to invest in arts education with the other financial challenges facing your district?