Delaware school boards make big decisions about voters' kids, but voters skip elections

Natalia Alamdari
The News Journal

Voter turnout for school board elections in Delaware has historically been low, with less than 2 percent of possible voters participating each year. Last year, just over 8,600 votes were cast statewide.

The lack of civic engagement when it comes to school boards isn’t a uniquely Delaware problem. Across the country, school board elections regularly see low voter turnout, often not breaking 10 percent.

In states like Delaware, where school board elections occur Tuesday, this is compounded by the fact that they aren’t held in conjunction with general or primary elections, which draw higher turnout.

And yet, school boards and the decisions they make affect the daily lives of their constituents more directly than other governmental bodies, whether residents have children or not.

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“My one vote makes so little difference in who’s going to be president, but my one little vote might actually decide a school board election,” said Kim Wells, director of the New Castle County chapter of the League of Women Voters. “One reason to care is that your vote matters more because fewer people are voting.”

Kim Wells is the 2018 Delaware VOTE411 coordinator for the League of Women Voters.

So, why should you care about the school board? Is it worth heading to the polls? And what does the school board do anyway?

“The school board sets the tone for the entire district,” said John Marinucci, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association. “If you have a very positive, forward-thinking school board that’s seeking to continuously improve, that will filter through the entire organization. The opposite is also true.”

Like congressional representatives, school boards are made up of elected officials who make policy decisions for their respective districts. It is on school boards to ensure the district is working successfully and giving the community a thriving public education system.

In Delaware, school board members hold five-year terms. They do not have term limits.

“The school board probably affects your life more directly than the president does,” Wells said. “They’re choosing things down to the dress code for your child when she goes to school in the morning. It has a more tangible impact on your own life than these nationwide races.”

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Beyond what happens in schools, boards also affect property taxes and values. If you’re a property owner and a school board decides to hold a referendum vote, that could increase your annual school property taxes. If you’re a renter, that tax increase could get passed along through a rent increase.

But whether or not you have children in public schools, you should still be aware of who runs the school district and how good of a job they’re doing, Wells said. A good quality school district means higher property values, she said.

“In reality, every single one of us is affected by decisions that are made by the school boards and the money that’s collected to support the schools,” Wells said.

More specific duties include:

  • Handling personnel matters (layoffs, hiring or firing superintendents).
  • Making curriculum decisions.
  • Establishing dress codes.
  • Making facility decisions.
  • Establishing a district budget.
  • Setting disciplinary policies.
  • Holding public meetings.
  • Making the decision to hold referendums (including how much to ask for).
  • Overseeing the transportation of children to and from schools.

Who can vote and where?

Delaware school board elections are Tuesday. You don’t need to be a registered voter to take part in school board elections. All you need is to be over 18, a United States citizen and a resident of the district where the election is being held.

To read up on candidates across the state and their stances, visit Vote411.org or WhoRunsOurSchools.com.

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.