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Schools stand alone in May election

November 24, 2010 - By Megan Collier

Review staff writer

Yes, school election costs have gone up significantly since 2005, and yes, schools aren't allowed to hold their own elections anymore, but more expensive elections aren't the fault of local clerks, says Joe Rozell, Oakland County elections director

He and Orion Township Clerk Penny Shults took issue with insulations made by some Lake Orion school boardmembers that the price hike was their fault. (See "School Elections Examined" in the Nov. 10 issue of The Review.)

"There was federal legislation – the Help America Vote act – that took place in 2005," he said. "That changed the face of elections in our state… Even if the schools would have continued to administer elections, their costs would have increased significantly simply as a result of the federal legislation."

The act came with a whole list of cost-increasing regulations, like requiring mailed absentee ballots for certain demographics, opening multiple polling places and using optical-scan paper ballots.

Shults said she met with former Superintendent Ken Gutman and former School Board President Bill Walters before the May 2009 election when the district was looking to combine precincts (from 14 to seven) to save some money.

"You can do that by law, but the township board passed a resolution back in 2005… confirming that we would use all precincts for all future elections," Shults said, adding it's possible for the board to amend that resolution, but it wouldn't make sense because the savings would be so little.

Consolidating precincts comes with a price tag of $3,450 because all voters need to be notified with a mailing. The savings from consolidating is only $3,700, so the net savings is a mere $250.

"Just to save around $300 – it makes no sense to have half of your voters change location," said Shults. "It would be the same as me expecting the schools to have half their students meet in a different location for one day. It's not that we're trying to make it difficult – I want every vote to count."

If the school district wants to cut elections costs, it should switch to a November election and be rolled onto the general ballot, says Rozell. As of 2011, Lake Orion will be the only school district in Oakland County to hang on to a non-November date.

"They're the only ones to stick with this costly May election to get three to five percent of voters turn out," said Rozell. "All of the other districts (in the county) have done it, it's working successfully, it costs them zero dollars."

The same is true in other counties, like Macomb and Wayne, too, said Rozell. "It's not just an Oakland County thing, it's happening everywhere… With the economy going the way it's going, they're saying 'We need to save every dollar we can and try to get those dollars into the classroom.'"

Why won't Lake Orion switch?

"I suspect that the district likes having a smaller voter turnout and a more controlled election," said Rozell.

According to the county elections official, if the school board decided they wanted to switch to a November election, they'd have to hold a public hearing and vote on the issue by the end of the year. The change could take effect in 2011, but since the school district is made up of township voting jurisdictions and those jurisdictions vote in the even years, the next election wouldn't be until November 2012.

As for suggestions of local clerks scamming the school district with higher election charges once it switches to a November election, they just aren't true, said Shults. In fact, in the schools' 2007 election, the township picked up the bill because they piggybacked onto the ballot for a safety path bond.

"They can expect the same thing in November," she said. "If we have an issue (on the ballot) beyond their election, it's paid for by the township."

She says she's not aware of any clerks who are charging to be included in the general election. (The Lake Orion school district falls over seven voting jurisdictions, so the schools are getting bills from six other places, though the bulk of the voting and the costs come from Orion Township.)

Ultimately, Shults said she'll hold the board's elections whenever they choose.

"If they want their elections to be held in May and they want the bond election in February, I'll do it with the same excellence of service we've provided in the past," she said.

Shults added that she's been in contact with several school board members, and the group plans to get together to discuss school election options again in the near future.

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