The Change the Date Coalition did a change of its own. Last year the group pushing for moving the Buffalo School Board elections was promoting a shift from May to November. This year, the coalition has a simpler — and smarter — goal: a move from May to June.
Indeed, it’s such a good idea that it shouldn’t be restricted to Buffalo. The state should apply that change to school districts across the state, whether on board members or budgets. Districts would get more buy-in from a larger cross-section of voters.
When Buffalo’s school elections were moved to May in 1973, the thinking was the change would depoliticize them. Electing board members in November, when the general election is held, was thought to make them vulnerable to partisan politics.
But in the words of Rev. Kinzer Pointer of the Change the Date Coalition, school elections are now “anything but depoliticized.”
The Buffalo Teachers Federation uses its power to push for the candidates it endorses for the School Board. Other groups, representing charter schools and other interests, come in with funding and manpower to push for the candidates they favor. The last board election, in 2016, featured lawsuits, petition challenges, charges of fraud and other niceties.
The argument for moving the board election to June is to align it with the new date for state political primaries, when more voters go to the polls. The typical city School Board election in May gets a turnout of only 8 to 10 percent of voters in Buffalo. Some years it’s as low as 3 percent.
The Legislature this month voted to change the state primaries from September to the fourth Tuesday in June, coinciding with federal primaries. Buffalo’s coalition is hoping the Legislature also sees the wisdom in making our school elections the same day.
A move to November, as the coalition advocated last year, would produce a bigger spike in turnout. In 2016, a presidential election year, 67 percent of Buffalo’s registered voters cast a ballot.
Even so, moving School Board elections to late June would be a nice consolation prize. Anything that nudges more voters into the process is a good thing. For districts in which voters cast ballots on school budgets, June could also be valuable in a way that November couldn’t be.
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, has been against moving from the May date, saying that a move to November would put political parties in charge of the process.
“I would rather have the election in May and less people show up because those are the people who care about education,” Rumore told The News last year.
Rumore says in Rochester and Syracuse, where the school boards are elected in November, that partisan politics dominate.
The status quo, of course, benefits the teachers union. It has an outsized influence on the makeup of the board, which has the final say on a budget of more than $1 billion. The union chief has no interest in doing anything to surrender his clout during election season.
Change the Date Coalition members have pointed out that Buffalo’s requirement of attaining at least 500 signatures for district seats and 1,000 signatures for at-large seats means that candidates need a “machine” behind them to get on the ballot. (Most other local elections only require 25). Rumore has suggested a compromise proposal: reducing the signature requirements from 500 to 200 for a district seat and from 1,000 to 400 for an at-large seat. Those figures are higher than ideal, but are a good starting offer. Regardless, the voting date should be moved to June.
The coalition is facing deadline pressure in its push for legislative action: Feb. 26 is the first day to circulate petitions for the May 7 vote.
No voting system is perfect, but we want our electoral procedures to encourage more participation, not less. Moving the vote to June would help to accomplish that worthy goal.