Missing the Appoint | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Missing the Appoint

Mayor Murphy's public-ed commission wants an appointed board, and low voter turnout for school-board elections is one of their reasons -- but commission members apparently failed math.

In recommending an appointed Pittsburgh school board replace the current elected one, the Mayor's Commission on Public Education blamed lower voter turnout in school-board elections. But the numbers tell a different story.



To make their case, the commission claims that school-board elections have even lower voter turnout than do mayoral or county executive elections -- or the county commissioner contests prior to 2000, for that matter. Of course, even those city- and county-wide elections had low turnouts. But as the commission's report claims, "Low voter turnouts enable candidates focused on narrow interests to win school board seats."


In pushing for an appointed school board, the commission has ignored an important fact: When candidate participation is high -- when there are contested elections, which the commission's report fails to distinguish from uncontested (or barely contested) elections -- voter participation is higher, yielding turnouts comparable to those in races that elevated Murphy and Roddey to office.


The commission's claims about voter turnout do not get much space in its 140-page report, yet the statistics are a sucker-punch to the elected board. Commission members were, shocked, for instance, to discover the most damning fact: that in the city's 1993 general election, school board District 5 (Greenfield, Hazelwood, Hays, South Side Flats) had only a 5 percent turnout, while District 7 (Carrick, Bon Air, Arlington, South Side Slopes) had only an 8 percent turnout.


But the commission is wrong. Somehow, in compiling their information, they managed to count only Republican votes -- a notoriously small group of city voters. Since school-board candidates can cross-file with both major parties, that year's winners in each district (Maggie Schmidt and Phyllis Bianculli) had beat out primary opponents to become both the Republican and Democratic nominees. These races actually got turnouts of 32 and 37 percent, respectively -- lower than the 46 percent who voted in that fall's mayoral election, but still respectable, since Schmidt ran unopposed and the challenge to Bianculli was so ineffective it garnered only 359 votes.





2001 Primary Turnout


Source: Mayor's Commission on Public Education (www.educationcommission.org) and Allegheny County Elections Division

In similar fashion, much of the commission's contention that low voter turnout somehow equals voter disinterest in school-board elections can be disproven. The closeness of a race seems to be the main factor governing voter turnout. The difference between voter tallies in opposed and unopposed school races is visible in the report's own source data, which is posted on the commission's Web site, www.educationcommission.org.


The commission also ignored another factor that may skew voter numbers somewhat lower in certain school-board districts. Strangely enough, if a high percentage of the population is registered to vote in a district, that actually drives the turnout figures down. For example, in 2003, 101 percent of the voting-age population was registered in District 3 (East Liberty, Garfield, Bloomfield, Stanton Heights, parts of the Hill). Obviously, some of these registrations are out-of-date. In District 1 (Homewood, Point Breeze, Lincoln-Larimer), 96 percent of adults are supposedly registered. These registration totals, almost certainly exaggerated, made it seem as if a smaller portion of registered voters had bothered to cast ballots.


The other three voting districts up this year had just 84 or 85 percent of their adults registered, perhaps partly aiding their higher turnout percentages among registered voters.


Also, in this Democrat-heavy town, it's often the primary elections that decide the winner in November, even for cross-filed school-board seats, helping to drive general election turnouts down for these races.


Overall, school-board contests with more than one serious candidate have turnouts comparable to balloting numbers in the city- or county-wide "big races" -- sometimes a little below, sometimes a little above. These larger races are not only higher profile but also much better funded. By contrast, school-board races are usually low-budget affairs, since board membership is unpaid.


The nine school-board members are elected to four-year terms. Every other year (e.g., 2003, 2001, 1999), half are up for re-election. This year, it's the districts with even numbers, involving seats currently held by Darlene Harris, Bill Isler, Jean Wood and Mark Brentley. In 2005, the odd-numbered districts will be up.


The commission reached back a decade for its worst example of supposed low voter interest in school elections, and used all the elections since then as further proof of the need for an appointed board. But even the most recent election, the May primary, fails to make their point.


When this spring's "big" races, such as the county executive battle, were uncontested (only Jim Roddey and Dan Onorato asked for their parties' nods), only 16 percent of people in the City of Pittsburgh bothered to pull a lever. But in school District 2 (Spring Hill, Troy Hill, Lawrenceville, Highland Park), Darlene Harris and Pat Dowd drummed up a 26 percent turnout with 6,376 votes -- more votes than the 6,085 garnered in the hard-fought city council three-way battle that partially overlapped the school board district, in which Len Bodack Jr. bested Nancy Noszka and Mitch Kates.


In District 6 (Brookline, Beechview, parts of West End), three candidates fighting to replace out-going incumbent Jean Wood raised a 17 percent turnout. But in District 4 (Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Oakland), Bill Isler was unopposed, yielding a turnout of just 12 percent.






The commission's low-voter complaint was no more true two years ago. In the 2001 primary, Democratic challenger Bob O'Connor came within 700 votes of defeating Mayor Tom Murphy. That race drew 30 percent of registered voters. The commission cites an uncontested school-board race that year, which attracted only 12 percent of voters, as proof once again. But the three heavily contested school-board races that spring drew turnouts of 27 or 29 percent:



·         Theresa Colaizzi beat four other candidates in a closely watched race to replace Maggie Schmidt in District 5. Turnout: 27 percent.

·         Incumbent Jean Fink was the favorite in District 7, but both she and upstart Donna McManus actively campaigned. Turnout: 29 percent.

·         In District 9 (Observatory Hill, Brighton Heights, parts of West End), novice Floyd McCrea (on a "neighborhood schools" slate) beat incumbent Evelyn Neiser as well as a noncampaigning challenger. Turnout: 29 percent.


Later that year, in the November general elections, when Murphy faced only novelty candidates -- a Republican and an 18-year-old -- the mayoral turnout dropped to 22 percent, but the two contested school elections drew 25 percent.


The only contested school elections that don't draw consistently higher turnout are those in District 8 (lower North Side, Perry, the Hill), which is currently represented by Mark Brentley. Although Brentley faced a fairly active (albeit single-issue) challenger this spring, turnout was just 12 percent. Turnout was also low -- 15 percent -- in 1999, when Brentley first ran against Ron Suber, though the campaign was highly publicized.


When City Paper shared these numbers with Raymond Baum, an attorney and member of the commission's Leadership and Governance committee, he countered only that the turnout information "wasn't the most persuasive information I got. So few people know who's running, know who the candidates are. Everyone knows who the mayor is, and people know who's on city council. I really believe we're making the right recommendation."

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