It’s not a cure-all for what ails the Buffalo City School District, but the decision to change the School Board election to November is a good move, assuming voters will play their roles.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo this week signed legislation moving the election date from the democratic desert of May, where it has long been stranded, to the November Tuesday when Americans are programmed to make decisions on governance. It was a gusty move by the Democrat Cuomo, as it was by the two Buffalo Democrats who pushed it through the State Legislature: Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Timothy Kennedy. It won’t make the teachers unions feel any better about them.
It was also sensible decision. The Rochester and Syracuse school districts already hold their elections in November, so among the three large upstate districts, Buffalo was not only an outlier, but it was working against the interests of democracy.
Holding the elections in May created two related problems. First is that it depressed turnout, since many voters are not paying attention to elections at that time. Consider this year’s elections. Even with all nine seats of the Buffalo School Board on the ballot – the first time that happened in 15 years – fewer than 7% of registered voters turned out. In 2010, turnout was an even more pitiful 5%.
There is a price for low voter participation: It tilts power toward the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which motivates its supporters to go to the polls. This year, for example, candidates endorsed by the union won every seat. Those board members will be called upon to craft the district’s annual budget, which is approaches $1 billion and, notably, to ratify a new teachers contract, assuming a deal is reached before the next election.
The fact that union-backed board members will deal with those critical issues doesn’t mean they will automatically give away the store, but it’s reason to worry about the priorities they will bring to the negotiations. And, in a sense, it’s like one-party rule: Without a check, those on the extremes have a better chance to influence policies.
It’s easy – and not entirely inaccurate – to blame nonvoters for conferring disproportionate influence on a special interest. All they have to do is show up. But if the decision to schedule to vote in May wasn’t specifically meant to accomplish that nefarious goal, it has had that effect. Changing the date to November should help, though as with all solutions, it can create its own issues.
Defenders of the May date have said that it avoids the partisanship that marks other governmental elections. It’s not an unwarranted concern, even though those same defenders fail to acknowledge the economic “partisanship” of empowering the teachers union with the spring elections.
Still, it would be unfortunate for school elections to be marked by the kind of disreputable, divisive rhetoric that characterizes so many other elections. That can and should be avoided. It hasn’t seemed to happen in Rochester and Syracuse. What is more, Buffalo’s elections already draw the influence of local politicians and outside organizations. Conflict already exists.
None of it will make a difference if the change in date fails to mobilize voters to understand the issues, investigate the candidates and go to the polls. Even in November elections, turnout is often less than robust.
That indifference is difficult to overcome, but starting with this year’s elections, early voting has been available for New York voters. If that helps draw more voters to the polls, then the Buffalo School District, and those who depend upon it, may well benefit.