COMMENTARY: What Delaware’s low school board election turnout tells us

A few months ago, my organization, DelawareCAN: The Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now, launched a campaign asking Delawareans to think about “Who Runs Our Schools?”

We aimed to raise awareness about the upcoming school board elections and the impact school board members have on the quality of education kids receive.

With less than 2 percent of eligible voters participating in previous school board elections, we had everything to gain and nothing to lose with “Who Runs Our Schools?”

Districts across Delaware held this year’s school board elections on May 8. Yet, despite our efforts and the efforts of several other community groups, the vast majority of voting-age adults still did not show up.

But this is not a cause of despair for us. At DelawareCAN — which I founded in 2017 — we learned lessons, made connections with community members and encouraged a statewide conversation that will give momentum to election turnout in 2019 and years to come.

How did Delaware do in 2018?

Colonial, Christina and Caesar Rodney school districts saw some of their highest voter turnouts in years during the 2018 school board elections. Yet, overall participation in Delaware school board elections remained staggeringly low.

We saw some good momentum going into Tuesday’s elections: major companies promoting the elections to their employees; city and county leaders helping raise awareness; and people using the #WhoRunsOurSchools hashtag on social media to encourage their friends to vote. But changing the status quo takes a sustained movement.

Tuesday was a strong reminder that Election Day cannot be an outlier experience. Instead we must connect people with their schools and school boards throughout the year, so voting next May becomes a logical extension of civic engagement; an opportunity, not an assignment.

In some cases, low voter turnout in 2018 translated into slim margins of victory for board candidates; 16 votes in Caesar Rodney decided the winner, for instance. The largest vote margin was in Brandywine at 520 votes.

A DelawareCAN analysis of election activity showed that Colonial District G and Smyrna School District generated the greatest polling activity relative to any other contested races over the past six years, while Red Clay’s only contested race — between Jose Matthews and Joseph DiMichele in District D — brought out 400 more voters than in 2013, when that seat was last up for election.

Altogether, voters in Red Clay, Caesar Rodney and Christina were the most active during this year’s elections, while Woodbridge, Lake Forest and Indian River saw the lowest voting rates; in Woodbridge, just 191 ballots were cast.

If we are going to change these sorts of results we must transform a public education system that operates much more like an oligarchy than a democracy. DelawareCAN exists to change the sad fact that our education system regularly excludes newcomers and advantages insiders. Most important decisions in education are made with little engagement from everyday folks. School board election participation is not unique.

Through “Who Runs Our Schools?” we connected directly with thousands of Delawareans across the state, including 300 registered voters identified the night before the election through a phone survey. Nearly one-third of these voters said they were not aware an election was taking place.

On the day of the election, www.whorunsourschools.com served as a key information-sharing website for Delawareans to plan their votes, amounting to almost 21,000 site hits.

Moving forward we will use Who Runs Our Schools? to connect Delawareans with their school boards year round.

We will work to fix flaws in Delaware’s system such as the fact that school board members receive five-year terms (longer than our state representatives and senators) after getting elected with an average of 400 votes.

State Rep. Paul Baumbach’s House Bill 278 seeks to reduce school board members’ term length and is a perfect example of ways we can give the community more voice in their school boards.

Likewise, Rep. Kim Williams’ HB 363 would also open polls for school board elections earlier in the morning to increase accessibility.

We would love to support other initiatives and ideas that strengthen Delaware’s school boards. For now, the polls are closed, but the dialogue is open. Let’s keep moving.

Atnre Alleyne is founder and executive director of DelawareCAN.

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