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Our View: School election change has benefits

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opinion Woodbury, 55125
Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

Minnesotans trumpet their nation-leading voter turnout in big elections for good reason. An active citizenry is a source of pride, and it provides some assurance that ballot results better reflect the mood of the electorate. Even-year elections - the most recent being 2010 - routinely see voter turnout rates that are much higher than do elections held in odd years like 2009 or 2011.

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For that reason alone it's hard to understand the logic behind District 833 School Board members' opposition to switching their elections from odd years to even years.

The issue was highlighted at a recent board workshop, at the request of Jim Gelbmann, one of three members who are up for re-election this year. Gelbmann suggested that the district should consider switching from an odd-year cycle to even-year elections.

Most of the seven board members apparently are satisfied with the current arrangement.

That is unfortunate. By continuing to hold elections in odd years, the district is spending extra taxpayer dollars to see board members elected by a small fraction of the voting population. How small, you ask? In 2009, there were 3,462 votes cast in the District 833 School Board election. By the latest count, there are 54,862 registered voters in the school district. That's a 6 percent turnout.

By comparison, roughly 41,000 voters from the District 833 area cast ballots in the 2010 general election.

Aside from turnout, there are other reasons the district should strongly consider switching election years. It costs roughly $25,000 for the district to hold its own election because it has to pay for election judges and equipment. The cost would be dramatically less if it switched to even-year races, when election expenses are shared by more jurisdictions. For a school district that wants to avoid hitting classrooms with budget cuts, this seems a good place to trim spending.

If increased voter turnout and cost savings somehow are not convincing reasons for a change, or at least more thought on the issue, consider election logistics: The district would not be charged with overseeing election administration and absentee balloting if it went to even-year elections.

Switching to an even-year cycle is hardly a radical change. In fact, District 833 is among only several dozen of Minnesota's 338 school districts that still hold odd-year elections.

Six years ago there were 168 Minnesota districts with odd-year elections and 172 districts casting ballots in even years, according to the Minnesota School Board Association. Then, federal and state laws made it more costly for elections to be held in odd years, so school districts started flocking to the even-year cycle.

Now, just 57 districts run odd-year elections, and the MSBA reports that a few of those may switch yet this year.

One District 833 board member's argument in favor of maintaining odd-year elections was that even-year elections would be more political, and school board members need to be nonpartisan.

The reality is that the district is not insulated from partisan activity by holding its own odd-year election. That was evident in 2009, when the Republican Party endorsed candidates for school board. Those candidates won seats. With that success for the GOP, it is a safe assumption that both the DFL and Republican parties will want to have a say in future elections, regardless of which year they are held.

Another defense of odd-year elections is that it gives school candidates the spotlight otherwise consumed by higher-profile races. But, we wonder, how bright is the light if it only generates a 6 percent voter turnout?

There are two practical ways the change could be made. Board seats could be filled for three-year terms in each of the next two cycles, before returning to four-year terms. That would be the most reasonable approach.

The other option would be for incumbent board members to vote to change their current terms to five years, rather than four, putting them on the even-year cycle in future elections. That has occurred in other Minnesota districts, but may not be the best approach in south Washington County.

Either way, it's not too late to start this year; the district has until the beginning of the filing period in August to make a change.

District 833 ought to seriously consider switching election years.

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