22 November 2016

School Board Elections #nlpoli

Some folks were a bit agitated over the weekend about how hard it is going to be  - supposedly - to vote in the school board election.

Voter turn-out may be down, according to Amanda Bittner, a  political science professor at Memorial University.  According to the Telegram, Bittner "said a lack of accessibility to voter information has made it hard even to figure out where to mark a ballot. After visiting the officialwebsite and scrolling through a 364-page PDF of polling stations, she was not convinced it did the process any favours."

Bittner said that “at first it took a while for me to figure out, well, how do I actually figure out who’s going to run? How do I figure out how it works if I could nominate somebody? Every single step along the way has been a bit confusing, and that’s definitely something we don’t want if we care about turnout...".

Problems with a website will keep voters from turning out?  

Well, no.

Turn-out will be appallingly low. We know that already. Although all people in the province over the age of 18 years are eligible to cast a ballot, only about two and a half percent showed up to vote the last time we had school board elections in 2009.

People won't show up to vote for some very simple and very understandable reasons.

Limited Tradition of Democratic Control of Education

The single biggest reason turn out will be down is that most people don't believe they actually have a meaningful role to play in determining how schools are run in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The school board doesn't matter. Historically, education was the exclusive domain of government bureaucrats and the representatives of the churches whose adherents held rights in education.  The old Schools Act allowed for school board elections but there was no question about who held the real power.  It wasn't the board.

The attitude didn't change much with the end of denominational schools in the late 1990s.  And with the consolidation of boards over the past 15 years, the ability of the elect board members to make any serious decision has been constrained.  School board rules gag members and restrict any chances for the public to learn of major initiatives until long after its possible to have any impact on the outcome.

Shrinking Population

After that,  consider the number of people likely to be interested in school boards.  People who don't have children in school are less likely to even pay attention to school board elections than those with children in the system.  Compared to the population as a whole,  the number of people with children in schools is at its lowest point in 50 years.  There were more than 142,000 children in schools in 1965. There were about 66,000 in 2015, according the education department's statistics. Basic math will tell you that there are - in fact - fewer parents of school children now than there were school children in the late 1980s. Enrolment has been below 125,000 children since the early 1990s.

Money and other supports

Even if all that wasn't discouraging enough,  now consider that English school districts are roughly half the size of federal electoral districts and more than double the size of provincial ones.  Candidates have experienced party workers to help run a campaign with federal and provincial elections. They can also raise money from donations and donors can get tax credits. 

None of those financial and other supports exist for candidates in school district elections. People aren't going to spend much of their own money to try and get a seat on a council that doesn't have much power anyway. But even for the folks who have filed papers as candidates, you haven't seen much in the way of campaigning by candidates even in districts where there are four or five people looking for a single seat.  That's because the sorts of supports they'd get in other elections just don't exist.

Campaigns are the main way during an election that people not only find out what is going on but also get interested enough to vote.  Since the school board elections are typically unfunded affairs, there is little chance of encouraging people to vote.  School board elections used to coincide with municipal elections.  Changing back to that approach might help but frankly you'd have to fix a lot of other things in addition to changing the timing of the election in order to be assured of improving turn-out.


That brings us back rather neatly to Bittner's comments about the website.  Not surprisingly, New Democrat member of the House of Assembly Lorraine Michael also slammed the election because of its crappy website.  What neither Bittner nor Michael noted, though was that there have been plenty of ads in print and online.  Michael noted in a CBC story very single parent of every single child currently in the school system has received an email about the election.

In other words, communication has actually been fairly good.  There have also been other media stories like a great piece in the Western Star on candidates in west coast districts.  People who you would expect to be aware of the board elections are likely already aware.  They won't be turning out to vote for the reasons described above. 

Substantial Issues Ignored

There are lots of reasons why voters aren't going to turn-out for the school board elections.   Most of them have to do with real issues, very serious issues, about democratic reform in the province. Politicians like Lorraine Michael have ignored them entirely in favour of a series of complaints aimed chiefly at Dale Kirby.  Michael and her colleagues are just playing out an old vendetta since Michael blames Kirby for the crisis that destroyed the New Democratic Party caucus in 2013.  

In the spring,  Michael and her colleagues complained because the government hadn't called board elections within a  few weeks of taking office.  Now the same folks are complaining that the elections won't be very good because of a lousy website. 


Maybe once this school board election is over, someone will start to talk about the real reasons why things are like they are and, more importantly, how we can change them for the better.