As the Scarsdale Board of Education is engaged in a review of multiple policies, including those governing its election system, the Scarsdale League of Women Voters met Feb. 11 to discuss whether to support two proposed policy changes, which would be put to a public vote this spring.
The first, and most notable, policy change would allow Scarsdale candidates to run at large for a seat on the board of education. Current policy requires candidates declare for which open seat they are running.
“The League recommends that the community vote in support of a proposition that changes our current system to an at-large system,” the league said in a consensus statement released Feb. 11.
According to Leah Dembitzer, chairman of the league’s sub-committee reviewing the election policy, the group viewed the proposal as the board of education’s way of “simplifying” the election process for residents.
Discussions about revising the system began after the 2018 board of education election. In that vote, then-incumbent school board member Pamela Fuehrer did not receive a nomination from the School Board Nominating Committee and therefore, she chose to run as an independent candidate. The school board policy required Fuehrer to choose for which seat she would run. In addition, Fuehrer’s name appeared twice on the ballot — once next to the seat she vacated and once as a candidate running for a new seat — which created some confusion among voters, Dembitzer noted.
Despite the events of the last election, Fuehrer told the Inquirer she didn’t think her experience would have been different had the at-large model been in place.
“Had the election been at-large last spring, very little would have changed for me,” said Fuehrer. “Quite simply, I wouldn’t have had to declare which seat I would be running for on the candidate’s petition. I would have run the same campaign — focusing on my experience, my commitment to students, the district, and its governance, and the value of incumbency.”
Fuehrer added the board has taken no official position on the policy change and the proposal occurred in response to community input.
She added, “We knew we wanted to look at all board policies this year anyway, because most haven’t been reviewed since the 1990s…changing this particular policy is not a board decision, it must be a voter decision. We simply decided to allow the opportunity to make the choice by putting a referendum on the ballot.”
Dembitzer said having an at-large policy will help remove the potential for “procedural gamesmanship” between candidates.
In Scarsdale, the existence of both a school board nominating committee and the Citizens Nominating Committee is meant to remove electioneering and contention as much as possible from elections.
New York State law requires that school board elections follow the specific seat model. However, there is a provision that allows school districts to change to the at-large policy through a community vote.
According to the Westchester-Putnam County School Board Association, approximately 10 percent of school districts in the region — such as Bronxville, Harrison and Valhalla — use the specific seat method.
LWVS president Linda Doucette-Ashman said the league reviewed the law so they could “assure people there is no right or wrong” answer in changing to an at-large method.
“The law is clear that you leave it to a community vote,” said Doucette-Ashman.
LWVS member Amy Cooper suggested the at-large method could create an imbalance on the board, with a plurality or majority of board members being from one neighborhood.
However, members of the league noted the current board is not totally balanced in regard to residency.
Renée Baylor, also a league member, said school board members are called to serve the entire school district — not their specific elementary school or neighborhood.
In its consensus, the league encouraged the board of education to make the potential policy change as public as possible prior to the referendum in May.
A second proposed policy change, which the league also supported in its consensus statement, centers on a logistical side of election season. It would allow residents who are not registered to vote in general elections — but would like to only vote in school board elections — to visit the school district clerk’s office year-round by appointment during regular business hours to register for school board elections.
Currently, residents who want to register to vote only in the school board elections must register at a designated time on two dates prior to the vote.
Baylor explained, in decades past, jury duty was assigned using the voter rolls that contained the names of registered voters.
Baylor said there were some residents who didn’t register because they wanted to avoid jury duty. Therefore, they stayed away from federally registering to vote and registered only in school board elections.
Cooper said she saw little downside to the policy change other than having to set an appointment to register with the school district clerk.
She added it might make more sense to just federally register to vote.
The school board is seeking community input on both policy changes. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.