Only 5 percent of Des Moines voters thought
participating in yesterday's school board elections
was worthy of their time.
So, it is fair to say the 111,831 voters who
did not vote:
1. Had something more important to do/didn't
2. Didn't have any idea there was an election
going on, which is possible since the five people
running raised a whopping combined total of
$4,763 or about 4 cents per registered voter
to communicate with the electorate. One candidate
didn't raise a dime. (Looks like the candidates
weren't too concerned about the election themselves.);
3. Thought the candidates were so indistinguishable
from one another that voting was a waste of
4. Meant to, but the line at Burger King was
so long that if they would have stopped to vote
they would have missed the first five minutes
of that Brady Bunch rerun; or
5. Decided to leave it to somebody smarter to
decide who should serve.
The depressingly low turnout meant supporters
of instituting a ward system only needed to
convince 2,948 voters to go along. The ward
system got 3,865 votes which means, going forward,
four school board members will be elected by
voters living in distinct geographic areas and
the remaining three by voters across the district.
In victory, ward initiative organizer Marty
Mauk said the measure's passage shows, "citizens
are fed up and they are ready for a change."
Umm, generally when people are fed up they stream
to the polls instead of staying home in their
jammies. It is reasonable to assume a few of
the 3 percent of voters voting "yes"
may have been mad as hell and not willing to
take it anymore (Marty, for one). But I would
bet the emotional temperature of most "yes"
voters hovered closer to "the change won't
hurt" than it did "revolution."
The ward vote and yesterday's turnout generated
an equally odd quote from school board member
Connie Boesen who said, "The bigger question
is not how we elect school board members, but
whether we should elect school boards at all."
Democracy isn't a phase people grow out of.
The fact so few voted indicates there is a problem,
but the goal has to be getting more people involved
in public education, not penalizing them because
they currently are not engaged. I called Boesen.
She claims she made the statement out of frustration,
not because she has a plan for creating an appointed
board free from voter approval. Fair enough,
but rarely is it productive to throw out a terrible
idea to make a case for changing something that
isn't working well.
A good first fix is one that I have been advocating
for years. In an October 2006 guest essay in
Cityview, I suggested the Iowa General Assembly
should move school board elections to odd years
at the time of city council elections. No longer
would school board elections be a stand-alone
vote during a season when it is difficult to
capture the public's attention. People would
be more interested in turning out to decide
a number of issues relating to their communities.
More importantly, combining the elections might
cause municipal and school leaders to better
understand each other and seek common ground.
This year the Des Moines City Council has embraced
the combined election idea. Here's hoping it
will generate more traction in the 2012 legislative
session than it did in 2007 when I wrote to
then Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro seeking
support for the idea.
The next fix may be in encouraging people in
our community who are passionate about our schools
to stand for election by becoming more engaged
ourselves. No other government entity plays
a more vital role in determining the health
of our community and shaping our collective
future than does our school district. We need
people to run who are more interested in doing
the job than they are in adding to their resume,
and we need to assist them once they get elected
by keeping them informed and being involved
in public education every day, not just when
an election or the right moods strike us. CV
Graham Gillette lives in Des Moines with
his wife and three kids. He runs a public affairs/communications
consulting firm and is a past board member of