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School boards across the state are weighing whether to hold their elections next year in May or November.

Annual school board elections have been on the third Tuesday of September for decades. They now must be the same day as preferential primaries in the spring or the general election in November.

Expiring Terms

Here are the Northwest Arkansas school board seats that will be up for election in 2018:

BENTON COUNTY

District * Zone/Position * Current seat holder

Bentonville * Zone 6 * Matt Burgess

Decatur * Zone 1 *(Vacant)

Decatur * Zone 3 * Kevin Smith

Gentry * Zone 4 * Randall Bolinger

Gentry * At-large * David Williamson

Gravette * Position 7 * John Edwards

Pea Ridge * Position 3 * Jeffrey Neil

Rogers * Zone 2 * Curtis Clements

Siloam Springs * Zone 3 * Audra Farrell

WASHINGTON COUNTY

District * Zone/Position * Current seat holder

Elkins * Position 1 * Carol Heymsfield

Farmington * Position 1 * Travis Warren

Fayetteville * At-large, Position 2 * Susan Heil

Greenland * Zone 6 * (Vacant)

Greenland * Zone 7 * (Vacant)

Lincoln * Zone 1 * (Vacant)

Lincoln * Zone 4 * Dax Moreton

Prairie Grove * Position 4 * Bart Orr

Springdale * At-large, Position 2 * Michelle Cook

Springdale * Zone 2 * Jeff Williams

West Fork * Position 1 * Mark Findahl

Source: Staff report

The change is required under Act 910 of this year's legislative session.

Proponents have said holding school elections at the time of primary or general elections will increase voter participation in school elections and may save districts money.

Some Northwest Arkansas school board members, however, questioned mixing the nonpartisan school elections with partisan politics and worried school issues will be ignored for more contentious ballot issues.

Officials on both sides noted areas where voter confusion may be created or cleared up by the change.

The 2018 preferential primaries are May 22 and the general election is Nov. 6. During odd-numbered years, school board elections will be held on either the day that would be designated as the preferential primary election -- if a general election were held that year -- or the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November.

Charles Cudney, director of the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative, said most Northwest Arkansas districts seem to be leaning toward May. Cudney, a former superintendent, said he would prefer an election date that comes with minimal distractions from school issues.

"That allows the school issue to be seen more clearly and doesn't have as much of a risk of becoming nationalized, or politicized, with other broader national issues," he said. "The national political debate has become so emotional in recent years, it seems at times to bleed over into the school debate."

Some boards have already decided. Fort Smith chose to hold its election in May. North Little Rock went with November.

Kim Dennison, coordinator of the Benton County Election Commission, wrote a letter to the county's school superintendents recommending they hold their annual elections in November "to help create consistency and less confusion for voters."

Rogers School District administrators, however, will recommend at Tuesday's board meeting to hold the election in May, according to Ashley Siwiec, district director of communications.

Rogers administrators believe a May election allows a new board member to be seated and get some orientation before the next school year starts and before the budget is approved in September. A November election places a new board member almost in the middle of the school and budget year and could leave the member struggling to catch up on issues, according to Siwiec.

The Bentonville School Board reviewed its options at a meeting in August. Bentonville administrators had proposed going along with the election commission's recommendation, but after some discussion, the board decided to table the issue to see what other districts decide.

Springdale and Fayetteville boards haven't decided. Jennifer Price, Washington County's election coordinator, said she doesn't particularly care which date districts choose but she'd prefer they pick the same date.

"We think it would be confusing for voters if half have it in May and half in November," Price said.

Districts don't have to notify their election commission until Feb. 22, though Price said she'd appreciate knowing sooner because the districts' choices impact the number of voting precincts the commission must open.

Susan Heil is the only Fayetteville board member whose seat is up for election next year. Heil, a board member since 2001, said she isn't ready to announce whether she'll run for re-election.

Heil said she's uneasy putting school board elections, which are nonpartisan, with all other kinds of elections for political offices. She believes one of the reasons school elections had been separate from the rest was to avoid clashing with partisan races on the same ballot.

Judicial races, which also are nonpartisan, are already part of primary and general elections in Arkansas.

Heil is also concerned about how the law gives boards the ability to change from one year to the next the date they hold elections.

"The opportunity for voter confusion is great," Heil said.

Boyce Watkins, advocacy director for the Arkansas School Boards Association, wrote a memo to school districts this summer in which he said most board members and superintendents favor May over November. Either month likely will make it harder and more expensive for school election issues and candidate messages to be heard because of competition with other ballot issues, he wrote.

"However, May should be a better choice than November, especially in even numbered years when there is often so much focus on state and/or national races by the time the November general election is held," Watkins wrote.

Bob Maranto, a Fayetteville board member, said there are things to like about the new law. He recalled campaigning in 2015 and encountering "immense confusion" from people who thought board elections were held in November and not September.

Maranto also expressed concern about how a small group of people can exercise enormous clout in Arkansas' school board elections because turnout is typically very low.

The 2016 race between two candidates for a Fayetteville School Board at-large seat, for example, drew 1,598 of 57,367 eligible voters -- a turnout rate of 2.8 percent. Washington County's voter turnout in the last general election was about 65 percent.

Another factor boards must consider is they may hold a special election to change the district's millage rate only before the school board member election. Choosing to elect board members in November leaves a much wider window open for special elections.

It's unclear what impact the change will have on the costs school districts incur for elections, in part because there is no standardized method statewide for determining the cost of holding a school election with another election, according to Watkins. There doesn't seem to be much difference in cost, if any, between a May and a November election, Watkins wrote in his memo.

Price said election costs vary by district. The most money she's seen a board election cost a single district is $12,000, she said.

NW News on 10/15/2017

Print Headline: School boards face election date choice

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