Concerns about polling places in schools leads to referendum question

Published on: 7/8/2014

Greendale — Voters may be able to choose whether polling places should continue being held in public schools this August, after the board of trustees voted to bring the issue to referendum July 1.

The issue of polling places inside the Greendale School District's schools initially arose last December when members of the Highland View Elementary PTO approached the school board to ask for more suitable polling locations.

The district's three elementary schools and high school are currently used as polling places during election days.

Since December, the initiative to move the polling places out of the schools has garnered more support from other PTOs as well as the school district itself.

"Having elections in schools hinders (teachers') ability to perform their job and educate our children in a safe and secure environment," Highland View Elementary PTO President Aleks Skibicki told the board of trustees at the July 1 meeting.

Resident Judith Wishman called the concern "an overreaction to a non-issue."

"I'm concerned about the safety of students, too, but if we were really concerned about the safety of students on school grounds, we would be looking at school buses, because they are more hazardous to children's lives than voters casting their ballots on election day," Wishman said. "I see voting in the schools as a good example for school children to see adults exercising their constitutional right to vote; it's a great lesson in civics."

Moving polling places out of schools wasn't just about fear from recent school shootings, Skibicki said. Election days made schools susceptible to child predators, theft and vandalism. In addition to safety, polling places in schools also interrupt normal class proceedings.

Looking for answers

A joint meeting between the board of trustees and the school board on May 6 led to discussion about the polling places, but no action was taken at the time.

The district has since officially requested the polling places be moved out of the schools by the next general election Tuesday, Nov. 4.

"In the past five years, we have completed multiple improvements and spent more than $320,000 on safety enhancements in the schools … (but) despite these efforts, there are at least two days of every school year when our schools' security measures are largely ineffective. They are election days when our three Greendale elementary schools are open to the public as polling places," the school board stated in a May 20 letter to the trustees.

Finding new locations for the polling places may be difficult, however.

According to federal law, elections must be held in locations that meet specific standards — available parking, building occupancy, accessibility for the disabled — that other facilities in Greendale are not qualified to handle.

The other option — to schedule the school calendar around election days — was determined by the school district as "not realistic."

"The November general election falls within the two-week, state-mandated (Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations) testing window," the school board stated in the letter. "Election days are Tuesdays and days off in the middle of the week are difficult for families needing child care. Moreover, there are often election days scheduled due to unexpected vacancies in public offices. The potential for these additions make it impossible for us to structure the school schedule around election days."

Trustee Sally Chadwickdisagreed with the district's explanation at the board meeting.

"Protecting the children is a no-brainer; that's never been a question," Chadwick said. "I don't have a problem with change (to polling places), but the change should happen from in-service days … I can't believe it's inconvenient (for the school district) because their number one priority is the children."

Chadwick proposed asking the school district to change its calendar around election days for the next five years, thereby granting the village time to find other alternatives.

Other trustee board members, however, wanted to hear more from the public.

"We've mainly heard from the PTO organizations … but we haven't heard from the rest of the public," said Village President John Hermes. "I think it's in the community's interest that we put this to the customer, the voters themselves, on where they want their polling to be."

In a 6-1 decision, the board of trustees directed staff to prepare a written referendum question that addressed polling place location for the general election. Chadwick was the dissenting vote.

The drafted referendum question is expected to appear before the board of trustees and the next meeting July 15.