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Our view: There's value to students when their school is a polling place

 
 
updated: 12/6/2017 12:34 PM

Members of the Illinois Association of School Boards are pursuing legislation that would reimburse school districts for security costs when their schools are polling places.

In short, the members want election officials, not schools, to defray those costs, which some districts say can reach $10,000 per election.

The proposal stirs a variety of issues worth contemplation, but the discussion should include one underlying injunction -- that schools remain locations where people vote.

That the schools themselves recognize this is evident in the Nov. 18 vote -- 157 IASB delegates supported the legislation but fully 148 opposed it.

Clearly, school officials have misgivings about giving up the use of schools as polling places.

As well they should. Tom DeNeal, a school board member in Harrisburg Unit District 3, described well the educational value of this practice.

"We should be teaching young people it is a privilege and right to vote, not an inconvenience," he told the other delegates at the IASB meeting.

Indeed.

There is real value in showing students a couple of times a year that voting is an active, assertive exercise that responsible adults undertake to strengthen our communities and our democracy.

This is not to say that schools don't have a point on the issue of managing the costs of an election. A $10,000 outlay for a project that doesn't directly apply to the activities of a school should not be dismissed lightly.

And polling brings disruptions to the everyday operations at individual schools.

But state Rep. Grant Wehrli, of Naperville, provided some valuable perspective.

"I understand this is what happens when budgets get tight and dollars have to be used for things that aren't education-based," he said, "but this is a community service and if not (at a school) then where else?"

Does it naturally follow, then, that schools must bear the full cost of this community service?

Not necessarily. We can't ignore that the presence of children complicates the job of keeping everyone safe on Election Day, but surely there is some way to balance the goals of using education money for educational functions and election money for election functions. After all, the main question isn't whether taxpayers must foot the bill but which pocket they will pay it from.

All that will be sorted out as the legislation moves forward.

Hopefully it won't be lost in the process that school buildings aren't just a practical option to conduct local polling -- instead, they are a natural location for teaching and promoting the fundamental responsibilities and mechanics of democracy.