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Editor's Note: The stealth school board election

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THERE'S AN old internet meme that goes something like: "Doesn't have kids—supports healthy public schools anyway because he doesn't like being surrounded by stupid people."

The health of the local public school system is indeed crucial to everyone, and not only because it’s better to live around smarter, more capable people, in a place with better and better-paying jobs because the local workforce is more competent.

The other truth is that the Savannah/Chatham County Board of Education has an enormous financial impact on your life whether you have kids or not, or whether your kids go to private school instead.

If you own a home, well over half of your property tax bill goes not to the City, not to the state, but to the local Board of Education.

Even if you’re a renter, you pay a goodly amount of sales tax over the course of a year in the form of the ESPLOST “penny tax,” more accurately called a one-percent tax.

(It’s one of the, uh, charming idiosyncracies of Savannah that we not only have high-ish property taxes but also high sales taxes to go with them. A bit frustratingly, the Chatham County voters who most support our variety of local sales taxes tend to be the kind of people most negatively impacted by them: low-income residents.)

Simply put, local school board elections are among the most immediately impactful elections anyone can vote in, even if they’re almost certainly among the least sexy.

Candidates for school board offices tend to know this, which is why school boards all over the country are often less about actual education than about ambitious people using the office as a vanity project or as a stepping stone to “bigger” things.

It’s a vicious circle: Voters pay little attention to school board elections, which means you get worse school board candidates, which means even less voter attention to school board elections, etc., etc.

The best way to break that cycle of cynicism and apathy is for more people to take school board elections more seriously.

That’s easier said than done. For example, I doubt many people know that in just a little over a month, on May 20, Chatham County will elect a new school board president to replace the outgoing Joe Buck.

To an extent, you’d be forgiven for not knowing, since in most years that election comes not in May, but in November.

This year, however, a federal court ruling has led to the nonpartisan general election for school board president being held on the same spring day as the partisan primary elections for federal office, when parties pick their standardbearing candidates for November.

The ruling—clarified by subsequent legislation in the state legislature—came out of Georgia’s heavy reliance on runoff elections between the top two vote-getters in a crowded field.

Georgia was found to have violated the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which guarantees that U.S. military and Americans casting ballots from overseas will have 45 days to vote (Georgia runoff elections are typically held 21 days later).

That’s all well and good ...but why aren’t the local school board elections just held in November, as usual, since there will be federal offices contested in November anyway?

Why move the whole school board enchilada back to May? Since the court ruling didn’t say anything about county elections?

A cynic would say that Georgia’s Republican majority in the state legislature used the court ruling to make sure that more Republican candidates win.

Many federal races this year have crowded Republican fields, for example the seven-way fracas for Senate between Republicans Jack Kingston, Paul Broun, Art Gardner, Phil Gingrey, Derrick Grayson, Karen Handel, and David Perdue.

This heavy competition means more Republicans will come out to vote in the May 20 primary election—which means that a Republican running in a general election against Democrats the same day, i.e., for school board president, will benefit.

Conspiracy theory? Maybe.

Paranoid poppycock? Possibly.

In any case, the fact is we have an already confusing local election almost certainly made more confusing by the actions of the state legislature, well-meaning or not.

Savannah is full of progressive, politically-aware young people, whether affiliated with SCAD, active in a creative field, or part of the growing local knowledge-based business core.

One thing I’ve noticed about these progressive, politically-aware young people, though: They don’t vote very often.

And moving big elections to weird times of year certainly isn’t encouraging them to be more involved in the democratic process.

So here’s my public service announcement for this week:

There’s an important election happening May 20. Five candidates are vying to be the next Savannah/Chatham County school board president.

The May 20 election is especially important because the contract for Superintendent Thomas Lockamy will be up for a board vote in 2016.

The new board may pick his successor, but since all other board candidates are running uncontested for district spots, the only vote that really has much of an effect will be the one for school board president.

It’s a nonpartisan election and it’s not a primary election—the winner May 20 or in a possible runoff election a few weeks later gets the job for four years.

The candidates are, in alphabetical order, with their day gig listed (school board president pays $16,000 a year):

Sadie Brown, retired educator

Jolene Byrne, university professor

Chester Ellis, pastor

George Seaborough, community activist

David Simons, political consultant

Google them. Ask around about them. Look for them on Facebook.

Regardless of your choice, the important thing is that as many eligible voters of all persuasions and backgrounds take part in this strangely timed election as possible.

If you’re not registered to vote in Chatham County, you have until Monday, April 21, to register to be eligible to vote in this important May 20 election.

The good news is it’s easy to do.

Go to: www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/

There’s an app too: Search “GA votes” in the Apple of Android app store.

No need to be confused anymore. Be the guy in that meme.

Remember: Election Day is May 20.

cs

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