Skool Bored Elekshon

21 Sep 2011

Image Source: Green Lane (GFDL) via Wikimedia CommonsImage Source: Green Lane (GFDL) via Wikimedia CommonsDid anybody catch the misspellings in the title? Perhaps it doesn't matter - apparently, very few people give a crap about our schools. Yet again, Des Moines residents exhibited a staggeringly low turnout for the school board elections last Tuesday.

Okay, maybe I am being a bit harsh. Low voter turnout is a complex issue and there is plenty of blame to go around: the Polk County Auditor, State election law, candidates themselves, lack of coverage by media sources, voter apathy.... I mean, I barely even knew there was an election and I enjoy following politics. Thankfully, former school board member Graham Gillette filed a spot-on commentary with the Cityview education desk.

Only 5 percent of Des Moines voters thought participating in yesterday's school board elections was worthy of their time.

So, it is fair to say the 111,831 voters who did not vote:

1. Had something more important to do/didn't care;

2. Didn't have any idea there was an election going on, which is possible since the five people running raised a whopping combined total of $4,763 or about 4 cents per registered voter to communicate with the electorate. One candidate didn't raise a dime. (Looks like the candidates weren't too concerned about the election themselves.);

3. Thought the candidates were so indistinguishable from one another that voting was a waste of time;

4. Meant to, but the line at Burger King was so long that if they would have stopped to vote they would have missed the first five minutes of that Brady Bunch rerun; or

5. Decided to leave it to somebody smarter to decide who should serve.

The real nugget of a great idea in his column was this: what if school board elections were held in conjunction with odd-year city council elections? In addition to saving money, this would have the effect of tapping into the predictably larger turnouts and encouraging better communication between elected officials.

Boom. Problem solved.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011, is a scheduled election to fill three seats on the Des Moines School Board. In addition, there is a measure to change the way school board members are elected. The proposal would create four positions elected by ward, and three at-large representative positions.

View the SAMPLE BALLOT here.

Please vote YES on Public Measure A.

I heartily endorse the idea of a ward/at-large system for our school board representation. Such a system is in place on our City Council and I am convinced that it provides the best possible representation - each portion of the City has a representative who can concentrate on issues specific to his or her area. The at-large representatives are able to take a broader systems view.

The Candidates

I can't recall missing an election since I started voting and I don't intend to start now. However, I'll admit to a bit of laziness this cycle - I'm sitting at the computer trying to do my "due diligence" research on the candidates the night before and not coming up with a whole lot.

So, for all you procrastinators out there, here's a quick link guide to all the information I could find on the candidates:

  • Dick Murphy (incumbent) Website - (But don't try to go there. Though reported in the Register, a website doesn't actually exist at this address. Murphy says he is "setting it up.")
  • Bill Howard Website - None
  • Pat Sweeney Website - None
  • Cindy Elsbernd Website - None
  • Felipe Gallardo (incumbent) Website - None

Are you sensing a pattern here? Not a single candidate created a website for their campaign (Note to Pat Sweeney and Cindy Elsbernd, a Facebook page is not a campaign website). In the near-vacuum of information available online about candidates, one is forced to perform the ubiquitous Google search.

Turns out, the only real candidate information I could find out there is a brief Register Q&A. Dick Murphy is running unopposed for a vacant seat, so that narrows down the field to four candidates vying for three seats. In this case, with such little information available, it becomes a search for any disqualifying characteristics or answers.

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Ballot boxWhat if you held an election and nobody showed up? Well, yesterday my vote counted more than it usually does. You see, there happened to be an election, and I was one of just 5,077 Des Moines Independent School District voters who voted on a property tax ballot question. This small group of voters decided whether to continue collecting a $.63 per $1000 property tax for school facilities improvement.

Let's say the average house in the Des Moines Independent Community School District is assessed at $100,000. I just spent $63 of your money! That's a fabulous dinner for two at Cafe di Scala, two oil changes, or 60 cups of coffee at Mars Cafe (with Foursquare check-in). Dear people who didn't show up to cast your vote: Thanks for letting me decide!

In all fairness, I can't place the blame solely on the voter. Publicity for this election was woefully, well, nonexistent. I must acknowledge my friend Kelli Griffis, who sent out a Twitter message alerting us that the election was underway. Had I not received that notification, I too would have missed my chance to cast a ballot.

Here was the question put before us:

Shall the Board of Directors of the Des Moines Independent Community
School District, in the Counties of Polk and Warren, State of Iowa, for the
purpose of repairing, remodeling, reconstructing, improving, or expanding
the schoolhouses or buildings and additions to existing schoolhouses;
expenditures for energy conservation; purchasing and improving grounds;
rental of facilities under Chapter 28E; purchasing buildings; procuring or
acquisition of libraries; or purchasing equipment authorized by law, be
authorized to continue, for a period of ten (10) years, to levy annually, as
determined by the Board, a voter-approved physical plant and equipment
property tax not to exceed Sixty-Three Cents (.63) per One Thousand Dollars
($1,000) of the assessed valuation of the taxable property within the School
District, commencing with the levy for collection in the fiscal year ending
June 30, 2012?

What the heck does all that mean? Well, it basically asks whether we should continue the way things are for the next 10 years, or get rid of the $.63 per $1000 property tax that is paying for school infrastructure improvements.

Whatever the question, turnout was embarrassingly low.

How might turnout be improved?

  1. Social Media - The Polk County Auditor should have a Twitter account for updates. I would appreciate them capturing email addresses for critical announcements as well. Both of these could serve double duty for communicating with residents during disasters. Polk County Health Department has a Twitter account that I have found very useful (@polkcohealth).
  2. Traditional Media - Whenever a decision meets the threshold for a public vote, it becomes important enough for the media to cover... it's their money, too! I didn't see any media coverage of the election (except, perhaps for some post election returns).
  3. Better Ballots - The graphic design of our ballots and the wording are both horrific! Not only are they visually confusing, but the text is difficult to decipher. I'm sure that any of our local creative talent could design a better ballot...
  4. Election Days - Holding an entire election in order to decide this particular question alone was costly and unnecessary. Election laws should be changed to encourage timing school board elections to align with other elections.

Here's hoping that more people care enough to vote in future elections.

If you didn't vote, why not? Feel free to respond in the comments.

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Schools rank right up at the top of any respectable list of urban "issues".

When children, morals, and big money are thrown together in the political blender, the mixture is likely to explode every so often. It looks like this September 9th, there will be an explosion of sorts in Des Moines.

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