School elections: a lesson in democracy



On the day after the voting papers are posted out, the board chair rings me to say that their constitution requires six people to be elected, not five.  OMG.  I am the Returning Officer and I am supposed to get this right.  I check my communications with the school.  I’ve emailed the principal on three occasions after his initial contact to remind him to complete the Letter of Appointment.  I have no paper trail for the phone call when I discovered that the principal had gone on extended leave.  Despite a public advertisement that called for five people to be elected, and many communications with the school secretary, no-one has picked up the fatal assumption I had made.  In a 24-hour turnaround, we send out new voting papers, this time with the instruction to tick SIX boxes, not five. The glitch is costly and makes no-one happy.   All the same, the board is successfully elected.


Incidents like these are not unusual.  The process of electing a new board every three years is manual, and complex.  My experience of this and many other elections, and the manner in which many boards fulfil their duties, leads me to ask: Is this ‘representative democracy’ the best way to involve parents in the education of their children?


Whoever once said that democracy is a very ‘untidy’ process?  The untidiness begins with the voting process itself.  The NZSTA reported at the end of the June 2016 election round* that across the country at least 14,800 nominations were recorded.  Of the 2414 schools on the election database, 43% didn’t go to election (because they had not enough nominees, or only sufficient nominees to fill the slate).  57% did go to election.


This, apparently, is a successfully completed election round.  The results speak for themselves:  almost all boards are properly constituted and are in place.  This is representative democracy at work.


However, the published data is a charade.  Despite the publicity surrounding board elections, the actual engagement of parents in the process is slight.


Nationally, only 22% of parent voting papers were returned.  Across the Auckland region, only 17% of parents voted.  In the Howick ward in Auckland, where most schools are comparatively large and high-decile, only 12% of parents participated.  In the low socio-economic communities of Auckland, the voting percentages were equally disappointing:  in Manurewa-Papakura, 13.3%; in Manukau, 13.9%.  The highest percentage turnouts seem to have been in country schools; or schools with highly-contentious internal issues to address.  Only one high school in the Auckland region obtained a turn-out of over 40% (Marist College), and 24 Auckland high schools (including the largest school in the country) had turnouts of less than 10%.  Remember, this data only applies to the half of schools that had enough nominees to require a vote.


When more than 90% of parents don’t vote, does this suggest that parent-led governance is a once-over-lightly devolution that pretends to be democracy, but really isn’t?




We could, of course, blame parents for their apathy.  At one school I discovered that a sitting board member had failed to send in her vote on time to even vote for herself – she missed out by one vote.


At another school, the low voter turnout resulted in a three-way tie at the bottom of the polling list with numbers barely into double figures.  Pulling names out of the hat left the principal disappointed: the lot winner was a kaumatua who had served the school for some 20-odd years, no longer had children at the school, had never attended board training, and whose major contribution to governance involved coaching a sports team.


And then there’s the excruciating pedantry of snail-mail.  New Zealand Post no longer delivers daily, and nominations notices and voting papers in some areas took much longer to arrive than half-interested parents could be bothered with.  As Returning Officer for several schools, I received return-to-sender envelopes up to six months after the election had finished.


Happiness is quality database management.  Parents and caregivers will be clearly identified, their addresses verified and postal codes recorded correctly.  No-one will have shifted.  Names will be consistently recorded to eliminate duplications (how can you tell that May J. Smith is the same person as Mary-Jane Smith?). Parents will check the electoral roll and point out any errors in good time.   In reality, school databases are erratically managed and their capabilities and limitations not always well understood by those that use them.


Returning Officers must use complicated and old-fashioned systems that hark back to the dark ages before the web.  Almost nothing happens on-line.  Social media is rarely used.  Systems are manual and archaic.


There are many good things about having parent-led boards of trustees.  However, there is (at a minimum) a process problem in getting them in place.  The regulations for conducting elections are antiquated and symptomatic of an inability within our education system to respond flexibly to social change and new technologies.  At the very least, we need a modern voting system that enables citizens to simply and easily stand for election and cast a vote.  Electronic communications , web-based nominations and online voting are critical tools for next-generation trusteeship.





*provisional results from the STA News, June 2016.