One of four
On the heels of a discussion about carving $10 million - or more - from next year's budget, the Lake Orion Board of Education voted Dec. 9 to contiune funding May school elections
December 16, 2009 - Ferndale, Hazel Park, Lamphere and Lake Orion. Only four school districts in Oakland County are still holding May elections, and, while last week's 6-1 vote in Lake Orion moves school elections to odd years only, the district will still incur costs it wouldn't see if November election dates were adopted.
"And those costs will continue to go up," said Joe Rozell, director of elections for the Oakland County clerk's office.
With Monday's vote in Oak Park to move school elections to November, Rozell explained, costs previously divided among five districts still holding May elections will now be divided among four.
Rozell said he spoke with three members of the Lake Orion school board in recent months.
"I offered several times to go out and make a presentation to the board," he said, noting he's been invited to speak at numerous school board meetings across the county. "They weren't interested. I never heard back."
Trustee Tiffany Weber-Phillips was the sole 'no' vote Wednesday, but made no comments during the discussion and did not return a follow-up call.
The district incurred $7,300 in costs just from Oakland County for the May 5, 2009 school board election, when one candidate ran unopposed.
The bill from Orion Township came in at $17,873, and the district also had to shell out money to Addison, Independence, Oakland, Oxford and Auburn Hills, which all contain small pockets of the Lake Orion school district.
At Wednesday's meeting, Trustee Robert Gritzinger said he wanted to make reasons behind the board's decision clear.
"We are moving to odd-year May elections in an effort to reduce costs and (the board) intends to pursue further reduction of costs," he said. "Some of that is incumbent on the township clerk and the county clerk, to look at the kinds of costs they incur in conducting our elections."
Gritzinger said he believes the clerk's office could be more efficient, given the historically low voter turnout at a school election.
Only 981 of the township's 23,998 registered voters—4.09 percent—voted in the May 5 election. Of those, most were cast by absentee ballot; each of the township's 14 precincts saw 25 or fewer voters.
"I have been arguing with the townships clerk's office for years over costs related to having multiple precincts when we need one or two," he said. "And sending out notices to everyone in the community (is costly). Those kinds of things are not required."
But Orion Township Clerk Penny Shults, who met with Superintendent Ken Gutman and Board President Bill Walters prior to the May election, said she has a job to do, and a responsibility to voters.
"They asked if we would consolidate our precincts," Shults said. "And we can't. I won't."
Such a move, she said, would result in voter confusion for both the May and subsequent elections, when voters were expected to show up back at their regular precincts.
"I would have to mail notice to everyone that their precinct has changed just for that election, and there's cost involved with mailing," she said. "We showed (the district) it was not a substantial savings because of all the mailing involved."
Other costs, she said, include overtime for township employees, publication, supplies, contract workers to do testing of voting equipment and precinct workers.
And, Shults said, she's done her best to reduce the district's bill.
For example, the number of workers at each precinct was cut, and Shults, a salaried township employee, got involved with delivering and testing some of the equipment at the precincts."I was able to shave just under $3,000 off what the previous election cost the schools," she said. "We're doing our best to get (costs) down. I empathize with what they going though. We're all in that same situation of wanting to control costs."
But from the standpoint of holding elections, and making sure those elections are run properly, Shults said she intends to maintain the standard.
"Kudos to her," said Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson. "We all should be working toward making sure everyone knows about the elections and everyone can participate. Voting is the foundation to democracy, everything grows from there."
Johnson said she's heard a lot of complaints from poll workers during a slow school election, and said her office has tried to arm districts with accurate information on which to base a decision.
"We've spent time trying to get the facts out," she said. "Some people feel it would benefit them to have their elections in May and they've been given information that wasn't always accurate. We make sure it's accurate; generally it's an educated board member that's going to look at it more favorably than someone who doesn't have all the facts."
More and more are switching over to a November election as financial times become tighter and tighter, she said, and as the public's demand for more efficient use of government dollars grows louder.
But Johnson also said she's heard about the districts who switched to November and "regret it."
"The vast majority of school board members in Oakland County have found nothing negative, it's all positive," she said. "I hear that gossip going around, but I've had no one say 'I wish I didn't do it because….
"It would be good to hear the because. It's easy to say 'There are some out there, but who are they? What's the reason? I've only heard gossip, never substantiated with what the actual problem is."
But School Board President Bill Walters said continuing on with the May elections makes sense for Lake Orion.
"While the choice of going to a November election would mean a zero number, we function as school from July fiscally and September academically," he said. "The May election was the board's consensus choice simply because that allows us to initiate and bring new board members into play with some effectiveness in the cycle of the school year."
Trustee Jim Weidman said he felt it was time to look at approaching elections and balloting in a new way.
"With technology where it is today, and the fact that 85 percent in last election cast as absentee certainly calls out for us to look at other ways to conduct elections that are more economical and more sensible," he said.
Lake Orion Review Editor