A recently signed state law, Public Act 99-0091, aims to make it easier for some districts to move away from sub-district elections of school board members that rely on congressional township boundaries and instead use an at-large elections voting system to elect local boards of education.
Some school districts find it hard to field enough candidates in school board elections when faced with the hurdle of residency restrictions that allow only a certain number of seats to be held by persons of a particular congressional township. Congressional townships are square parcels of land that are six miles long on each side, created under federal requirements to determine boundaries for land ownership; they are not the same thing as civil townships, which are created as entities of local government.
Most school board elections are at-large contests, but in a few school districts in our state, specified sub-district residency requirements limit who is eligible to run for a specific school board seat. A number of rural school districts stretch through more than one congressional township, meaning sub-district representation may be mandated for an area that is home to very few citizens and as a result, a small candidate pool.
The only way such a school district could change to at-large voting before the new law was to have a majority of those voting in each congressional township that comprised the school district approve a referendum. Under the new statute signed by Governor Bruce Rauner in July, districts can still make the change by a majority vote in each congressional township. An additional option, however, now will allow districts to approve the switch by a two-thirds majority vote of the electorate for the entire district.
While this may not appear to be a substantial change, there are instances where districts previously approved at-large election referendums with more than 70 percent of the popular vote, but because one congressional township was in dissent, the switch could not take place.
Since 2002, there have been 21 attempts to change to at-large voting for positions on local boards of education, with only four of those attempts proving successful. Virginia CUSD 64 has tried twice to pass an at-large election requirement via referendum, but to no avail.
“This has posed a significant issue for us. We have tried to change it twice, but the referendum always falls short in one township,” said Matthew Werner, the Virginia board president. “We had a handful of candidates that wanted to run previously but couldn’t because they were from the main township. Instead, three board members were appointed after the election.”
The idea behind the new law, which will go into effect on January 1, 2016, is to attract the best candidates possible and allow the community to vote on who they would prefer to make their local education decisions. The law aims to give voters a fair choice through the referendum process and avoid repeatedly having open seats that are filled through appointment rather than at an election.
“We’ve had a position statement directing us to address this problem for years and have introduced the bill numerous times. We are glad to have finally accomplished this for our members,” said Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of IASB.
“Especially in rural areas where populations have dwindled or shifted, it was becoming difficult to find school board members within arbitrary sub-districts. This bill will help school boards move to at-large elections that will be advantageous to both citizens and the school district,” Schwarm said.
For any school boards seeking guidance on attracting qualified candidates for board positions, IASB will be offering a “Recruiting School Board Candidates” panel session on Saturday, Nov. 21, at this year’s Joint Annual Conference. Details about this panel session and other programming are available in the Conference Preview.