Georgia voters will find a lot of races on the ballot this election season. Usually, high-profile offices like governor and attorney general are at the top of the ballot. Local races tend to be in the middle or toward the end of the ballot.
Those races, which include school board contests, don’t get as many votes.
Often, school board races attract less than 20 percent of registered voters. A recent analysis found some school board races in Delaware drew an average of 1.8 percent of registered voters.
Low-Turnout By Design
Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, says there are several reasons why school board races don’t attract big numbers of voters. For one, they weren’t originally supposed to.
“Many local school districts and board elections were designed to be low turnout,” Henig says. “Reformers back early in the 20th century thought it was important to sort of pull school elections outside of the stream of regular municipal politics, which they tended to think was overly partisan, patronage-oriented, machine-oriented.”
As a result, some school board elections take place during “off” years, like during midterm elections as opposed to presidential races. In general, voter turnout drops during midterm races and primaries.
“I think it’s also the case — with the exception of when there’s some hot scandal or a big bond-related kind of issue relating to people’s perception of cost and taxes that they might have to pay — that a lot of what school boards do isn’t very dramatic,” Henig says.
While they may not deal in drama, school boards do carry some heavy responsibilities. They approve the curriculum and decide how to spend the budget. The Gwinnett County Public Schools’ budget for FY19 is more than $2 billion.
Meet The Candidates
The Gwinnett school board has two open seats this year: in Districts 2 and 4. Unlike Atlanta Public Schools, the Fulton County School System and the DeKalb County School District, Gwinnett’s school board races are partisan. The Democratic and Republican winners of a May primary race will face off in the general election Nov. 6.
Republican Chuck Studebaker and Democrat Everton Blair are both hoping to represent Gwinnett’s 4th District, which covers the southwestern part of the county. School board races tend to be low-budget affairs, but both candidates are reaching out to constituents via social media, knocking on doors, and are holding campaign events.
Recently, Studebaker set up a booth at the Snellville Fall Festival. The family-friendly event had all kinds of games and contests, and, of course, plenty of food. Studebaker stood in the drizzling rain to greet people and to urge them to vote. Studebaker’s a businessman, dad and longtime Gwinnett resident.
“I’ve lived here for 21 years,” he says. “I raised my kids here. Two of my kids are still in Gwinnett County schools. My other one is at UGA along with some of my money.”
He says through campaigning, he’s learned a lot of people don’t really understand what office he’s running for.
“I had a primary race in May,” he says. “And people thought I won it all then. Or they’ve said, ‘Congratulations on being superintendent,’ or things like that that are a little frustrating. I’ve had people that have said stuff like, ‘We vote for school board?’ Yes. Yes, we do.”
This race has the potential to shake up Gwinnett’s school board. Studebaker’s opponent is Everton Blair, a 26-year-old African-American man. He’s one of two candidates of color running for school board in Gwinnett. Wandy Taylor, of District 2, is the other. She’ll face Steve Knudsen.
“There’s obviously a historic element that I think galvanizes folks in a really interesting way,” Blair said at a recent campaign event. “We’ve never elected a person of color to our school board — of the largest school system in the state of Georgia that serves 78 percent students of color. And our school board is very seasoned.”
Blair graduated from Shiloh High School in Gwinnett’s 4th District, the one he wants to serve. He went to Harvard. After graduation, he taught in Atlanta for two years through a program called “Teach for America.” Now he works in instructional technology. To make sure people turn out to vote, he knocks on doors on the weekends and every day after work. He says constituents are generally glad to see him.
“They’re super receptive and surprised by the fact that this young guy is coming at my door, telling me about the importance of a school board race, where you know I might just typically vote down ballot or not know either candidate and you know make a guess or something like that,” Blair says.
As a former teacher, he says instruction would be his top priority. He says the board has plenty of business-savvy members, but no educators.
“What I think we could use is a new voice that centers on the instruction of today and reflects on a recent student experience because nine years ago I was literally a student in Gwinnett County Public Schools, and less than five years ago I was a teacher in the city of Atlanta,” Blair says.
He thinks the race’s partisanship is a drawback.
“We shouldn’t be so concerned with the reds and the blues when it comes to school board and the experience that people have bringing themselves to the point when they’re choosing to run for public office to serve our school district,” he says.
Studebaker would also rather put politics aside in this election. If elected, a big priority for him would be increasing parental involvement.
“We have to have parents who are involved in what’s going on with their kids’ schooling,” he says. He plans to increase participation by having direct conversations with parents, asking them to come to school events.
Like Blair, Studebaker has also been knocking on doors. He believes people get tired of checking so many boxes and may quit before they get to the school board race. So, he’s come up with some analogies he uses on the campaign trail.
“For the younger folks: Marvel movies,” he says. “You know you gotta stay till the credits because there’s something better coming.”
He uses a different analogy for the not-so-young folks.
“You remember old-time church socials?” he says. “They’d come by, and they’d take your plate, and they’d always say to keep your fork. Why? Because there’s something better coming, and that’s dessert.”
It’s unclear whether voters will see it that way, but in a race where school board candidates are fighting for every vote, he figures it’s worth a shot.