A lesson in democracy or a security risk?
That’s how the debate was framed by officials in La Grange School District 102 who recently voted to push back an Institute Day next year to keep students out of schools for the March 2014 gubernatorial primary election.
Legislator considers letting schools opt out
Whether schools should serve as polling sites is a question more districts are considering post-Sandy Hook, and the debate has reached Springfield. In March, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, announced legislation that would prohibit public and private schools from being used as polling sites.
No bill has been officially introduced, and after talking with county clerks about the shortage of available polling sites, Franks said a future bill would not eliminate schools as polling sites altogether, but would allow schools to “opt out” of their obligation to serve as voting locations – a state law – if they cannot maintain the same level of security on election day compared to a normal school day.
Cook County Clerk David Orr said he does not support such a change. Orr notifies districts of future election dates far in advance – currently, through 2018 – and he encourages districts that have security concerns to plan so that they don’t have school on election days, such as by having an Institute Day. This year in suburban Cook County, 131 schools chose that option.
There were 14 districts that requested that their schools not be used as polling sites for the April 9 election, some citing security reasons, but all were denied.
“We definitely sympathize with their need to keep their school secure, but since a third of our precincts are located near schools, we need to use schools as polling places,” said Courtney Greve, spokesperson for Orr.
Nearly 400 schools in suburban Cook County served as polling places for the election, including all four schools in Western Springs District 101.
“We hope that April was the last time elections will be [held] in our buildings,” Superintendent Brian Barnhart said. “The lack of ability to really control that situation is reason enough to try to get elections out to different places in the community.”
That, said Greve, isn’t a possibility. Schools make up one-third of polling places in suburban Cook County, and without them, there wouldn’t be enough places for people to vote, Greve said. In some places, schools are the only sites that meet accessibility requirements.
Franks anticipates that 5 to 10 percent of schools would opt out of their requirement to act as a polling site if legislation is passed.
“I don’t see why the clerk can force schools to be polling places when the schools don’t want to be and can’t protect their children,” he said.
Local schools debate holding Election Day classes
District 102 Board President David May was the only board member who voted against moving an Institute Day to keep students out of school next year.
“[Voters] use a separate door. They go into a separate room [that] the kids and staff are not using that day,” May said. “We hire off-duty policemen for each school to keep an eye on voters and make sure that none of the voters leave that room and go into any other part of the school.”
May said he thinks students benefit from their school serving as a polling site.
“When they see all the voters coming in and the signs and hear the room is closed for the election, I think that’s a good civics lesson for them,” May said.
Board Vice President Joyce Fitch, a former language arts teacher, didn’t agree.
“I don’t think it is a civics lesson,” she said. “The overriding factor for me was that the parents and the teachers wanted to have the students out of the buildings [on Election Day].”
One District 102 parent, Susan Ragaishis, drafted an online petition asking Illinois to stop using schools as polling places while students are present – Franks’ initial proposal – that received 145 signatures.
Note to readers: This is the second installment in a series looking at security issues at local schools. Readers can share their thoughts by commenting at mysuburbanlife.com/lagrange or by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org