City opts out of May School Board Election, County to take over at extra cost

City opts out of May School Board Election, County to take over at extra cost

(Crystal A. Proxmire)

In an effort to save money and increase voter participation, Ferndale City leaders and Clerks from other cities in the Ferndale School District have asked the School Board to move their elections to November, to coincide with the general election.  The City Council voted Monday Sept. 27, 2010 to opt out of the May election, leaving the School District with two options: move to November like most other School Districts have and the City will return to administering them, or let the County step in.

At the School Board meeting of August 16, 2010, The Oakland County Director of Elections Joe Rozell presented the benefits of the November switch.  He was joined by Marne McGrath of the Ferndale City Clerk’s office, Gwen Turner of the Royal Oak Township Clerk’s office, Ferndale Mayor Craig Covey, Councilperson Melanie Piana and other concerned residents who support the move.

Moving to a November election would save the School District over $27,000 a year, and it would save the City of Ferndale over $4,000 a year in unrecoverable expenses.  The unrecoverable costs are from the day-to-day operations that are taken up by election related duties, such as proofing ballots, creating test decks, preparing, mailing and processing 700+ absentee applications (postage is paid by the District), testing election equipment and all the other numerous statutory duties that are required to administer an election.

Costs involved with a May election would be eliminated completely, as there would not be extra ballots printed, no DPW hours spent transporting polling equipment, and about 118 hours of Clerk’s office time freed up to handle other City business.  This does not take into account hours put in by salaried Clerks.

McGrath spoke after the meeting about the expense to the City.  “There is a lot that goes into preparing for an election that people don’t consider. It’s unfortunate that voter perceptions weren’t mentioned at the meeting. Our staff hears what a waste of time and taxpayer dollars the May election is on a daily basis around election time. Even though we inform voters and the general public that the School Board reimburses the City for most of the costs, people still perceive it as their tax dollars being spent frivolously.”

The School Board, which is an independent governing body, has not moved the election to November, so City Council has turned over responsibility for administering the election to the County – which is expected double the cost to the District, but eliminate the cost to the City.

Rozel said that though the County is legally obligated to take over elections not conducted by Cities, it’s not something he recommends because of the costs involved.  “My office is not set up to conduct elections on election day,” he said, noting that they have limited staff and have to hire workers or contract the work out.  “Those are costs we’re adding on to recover.”

Currently 23 school districts in Oakland County have moved to a November date and held successful, zero cost elections.  Only Ferndale, Hazel Park and Lamphere hold annual elections in May.  Lake Orion has May elections, but only in odd numbered years and with officials serving six year terms.

In addition to the financial issues, residents and City officials expressed concern over low voter turn out, particularly in the southern areas of the district.  “This is a question of money that need not be spent, [but also one of]…socioeconomic disparity,” said Ferndale resident and parent Kevin Deegan-Krause.  “It’s a justice issue, not just a political issue.”  He shared information from* a voter turnout comparison, which showed that having an isolated May election results in turnout from Pleasant Ridge that is 3-4 times stronger than other cities, a disparity that is not reflected between the cities in the general election.

[NOTE:  An earlier version of this article said that Kevin Deegan Krause “presented” this information. Stephanie Hall of the Ferndale Public Schools has asked that the word “presented” be changed to “referenced” because Krause was not there as an “official” presenter. However, we’re using the phrase “shared information from” because that seems appropriate]

2008 General 2010 School Board
Royal Oak Twp 62% 3%
Ferndale 63% 4%
Oak Park 69% 3%
Pleasant Ridge 83% 12%
Ratio of highest to lowest 1.33:1 4.43:1

Monica Mills, a Ferndale resident, addressed the School Board.  “With a May election parents are busy and in November it’s a time when people are thinking about elections.  …It makes it seem more important.”

Councilperson Piana asked for the School Board’s consideration.  “I think we all share the same values of transparency and a strong voter turnout,” she said, adding that one of the City’s goals is “to create more government efficiency.”

The School Board listened to the comments and sent the issue to the Policy Committee to be discussed.  In an interview the next day, School Board President Chuck Moeser said the Board expects a recommendation from the Committee by November.  The School Board would also have to hold a public hearing on the issue before making a change.  The deadline for the City to opt. out of administering a May election is in January.

“We’re going to take a good hard look at changing the election date,” Moeser said.  “But it is wrong to say that a May election is not transparent.  That’s the wrong use of the word. …Everyone knows when the election is.  We [Moeser and Carol Frederick in the May 2010 election] went door to door with our fliers on every street.  We went to Royal Oak Township.  We went to Oak Park. Everyone knows about the election.

‘…In May we’re the only ones on the ballot.  In November there’s a lot going on…When you have a lot of things to think about, you don’t have time to think hard enough on all the things,” he said.  “I’d hate to have them [voters] just check a box ‘cause they feel they’re supposed to.  I’d rather have people who come to meetings, serve on committees and make a good conscious decision.  We are as transparent as we can possibly be, but people have to be interested.”

He said that holding the School Board elections with the general elections could give some candidates unfair advantages by getting endorsements from people who are running for council.  He gave the example that some people might be going to vote for the council election and only vote for the School Board candidate because they saw their name as being endorsed by the council candidate they like.  “I consider it will be more politicized instead of people thinking for themselves.”

He is also concerned about voter fatigue, which is when citizens cast votes for the highest offices, but fail to complete their form.  “I think it’s a good thing to consider – is it worth $27,000 to have what I call true transparency and not be buried at the bottom of the ballot?” Moeser said.  “But people are more worried about money than about anything else.”

It is now up to the School Board to decide how to proceed.

Please send us your opinion – editor@ferndale115.com.  Opinions are published on the 1st and 15th of each month, and must be signed with your full name and city of residence.

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