Engage in your schools
With school board elections coming up next week, this is a good time to bring up a topic that we’ve been talking about in our office since the village elections — voter engagement.
It seems that local elections are won or lost by the number of people who can be found in a busy restaurant. No candidate in Geneseo, for instance, brought in more than 400 votes — and the top vote-getter led the last-place candidate by less than 200 votes.
The Village of Geneseo is the county seat, with a population of nearly 10,000. The decisions made by the village board, more than any other factor, affect the village’s prosperity and quality of life — and by extension, because so many people travel here to do business, the entire county.
Yet, elections are won and lost by the number of people who might attend a candidate’s church or populate his or her Facebook friends list.
This isn’t to take away from the effort candidates put into their campaigns; we know that each of the six running for office spent many hours knocking on doors and presenting their point of view to potential voters. But in the end, this potential never fully materialized.
With these numbers, it’s conceivable that a candidate could win a local election without a single voter having to make a real choice about the issues.
Next week is the school board election, which includes the school budget — the only time of year New York voters can directly influence the operation of a taxing entity.
If you talk to school superintendents candidly, they’ll tell you that school budget votes traditionally have low turnout unless there’s a big tax hike or bond measure — and then, the extra votes come from retirees on fixed income who don’t want to be squeezed anymore to support a school their children no longer attend.
Unlike town and village boards, school boards can’t negotiate with outside businesses to bring in a new factory and lower residential property taxes. School boards can’t approve a housing development to bring new families into the community to spread that burden around. School boards have less flexibility to defer maintenance and capital projects, or adjust staffing levels.
Yet schools are the most vulnerable sector of the community to an active minority voice — a fact made sadly ironic because schools serve those in the community that have no vote at all.
When a school budget fails to get a majority vote, the state requires the district to either ask voters to accept the budget with changes, or adopt a “contingency budget” which limits the way a school can spend its funds. Twice in the last ten years, voters have shot down a school budget out of sheer spite despite the fact that the tax increase was less than the state’s contingency plan.
Next Tuesday is another chance to halt the trend of voter apathy in Livingston County. Six school districts have competitive board elections and all have budgets that deserve your consideration.
If you are an alumni of these schools, have children enrolled, or enjoy the cultural programs those schools offer adults, you owe it to your community to vote.
Voting is, quite literally, the least you can do — but schools would see major change if you at least did that.