What difference will it really make if Buffalo moves its school board elections from May to November, as a broad community coalition proposes?
Research from California, where nearly all school elections already are held in November, suggests it could matter a great deal in some years – or not much in others – depending on which November you’re talking about.
And it could matter not just to the teachers union, which can have an outsized influence in May elections and has a lot riding on the outcomes. It also could matter a great deal to board members themselves because of the low test scores in the vast majority of Buffalo’s public schools.
Maybe that’s why board members have never seemed as gung-ho about the change as other school reformers.
In the analysis of California balloting, where almost all school board elections are held in November, Stanford University doctoral candidate Julia Payson looked at the impact of that election timing on the degree to which voters held school board members accountable for district performance. About 40 of California’s school board elections are held in November of presidential election years, about 40 percent in November of off years, and most of the rest in odd-numbered years, she said.
Payson compared election results in those various Novembers to district test scores to determine if voters actually held school board members accountable for district performance.
She found that only "in presidential election years, when turnout is at its highest" is there a strong relationship between district achievement and incumbent performance at the ballot box. "However, this relationship is less pronounced in midterm years and completely flat in off years," she concluded in a Legislative Studies Quarterly analysis in 2016.
Sarah Anzia, author of the 2014 book "Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups," looked at election timing and teacher pay when she was a Stanford doctoral candidate in 2010 and found a similar correlation. Anzia concluded that "districts that hold school board elections on days other than state and national elections pay teachers significantly more than districts that hold on-cycle elections" concurrent with federal or statewide elections. Districts holding off-cycle elections, in fact, paid experienced teachers more than 3 percent more than other districts, she found after looking at data from California and seven other states.
Why such variation in board member accountability and pay, depending on election timing? As Payson put it, "People who vote in low-turnout elections are often a unique subset of voters with vested interests in the election results." In other words, mostly teachers and other district staff.
That conclusion jibes with the reasoning of those pressing the state Legislature to move Buffalo’s elections from May to November before it adjourns this month.
However, such findings indicate that simply moving school board elections to November – any November– may not be enough if the goal is to actually dilute the power of school unions and change district outcomes. The greatest impact comes only when school board elections are held in Novembers of high-profile years.
That won’t always be the case here, given Buffalo’s convoluted school board election schedule.
According to proposed legislation to change the date, effective in 2019, at-large board members would serve an initial four-year term and district members would serve an initial two-year term. After that, board elections would return to the current five-year and three-year cycles, respectively.
That schedule means it would be 2024 before district candidates share a ballot with presidential contenders, and 2028 before at-large members do so. It would be 2030 before district candidates share a ballot with gubernatorial wannabes and at-large candidates would never do so.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth making the change. Anything that will raise the district’s paltry turnout – 5 percent in 2010, less than 10 percent in 2013 and a recent high-water mark of just 13 percent in 2014 – is worth trying.
But given the notoriously low turnout researchers cite in municipal and other off-cycle elections, in most years it won’t matter because the extra voters may not be enough to outnumber school workers with a vested interest in the outcome. Nor will it matter if the extra voters fall prey to union advertising blitzes and back the same candidates as the school workers.
Short of changing school board terms so that they line up more often with the highest-profile elections, it only will matter if more voters educate themselves about the candidates and issues. And it only will matter if enough of them, no matter which November it is, then get up off the coach and pick those candidates who truly will put children first – as the district’s mission statement promises.