Thousands of Evanstonians will head to the polls on Tuesday to cast their vote in elections for school board, City Council and the Oakton College Board of Trustees.
At the same time, public school students in town are on spring break through April 10, with families potentially out of town for the week and older high school students eligible to vote possibly gone for sports or performing arts competitions.
The RoundTable reported last week that spring elections for local offices typically see a much lower turnout than November statewide or national races, whether Election Day conflicts with spring break or not. In an effort to assess the impact that an overlapping election and school vacation could have on local races, though, the RoundTable asked school board candidates for their take on the calendar’s influence on voting access.
“I’m sure having spring break during Election Day is a contributing factor to low turnout, but it’s definitely not the only factor,” said Monique Parsons, the Evanston Township High School board vice president who is running for reelection this week. “Isolating spring break would assume that all families in Evanston are able to leave town for spring break. That’s not the diverse Evanston we live in.”
Every other high school in the area and most other elementary and middle school districts in the surrounding suburbs held their respective spring breaks last week, from March 27 through 31, while Evanston and Chicago Public Schools are off this week.
At both ETHS and District 65, a calendar committee of parents, teachers, staff, administrators and at least one board member meets several times every year to construct upcoming academic calendars for the full board to approve, according to Parsons and Leah Piekarz, a retired ETHS counselor running for the board who also previously served on the committee.
The main considerations for that committee are usually aligning with the other Evanston school district, finishing third quarter before spring break and ensuring school is in session for the state-mandated SAT testing date for high school juniors, Piekarz said. CPS calendars are not a factor in the decision, according to ETHS Teachers’ Council President Rick Cardis.
Over the last 12 years, spring break has only coincided with Election Day twice, in 2011 and 2015, which saw turnouts of 10.98% and 9.15%, respectively. Those represent two of the three lowest turnouts that Evanston has seen in odd-year local elections since at least 2009, according to Cook County voting data.
Both of those years saw contested elections for District 65 and ETHS board. The only year with a lower turnout, 2019, was an uncontested race for District 65, with three candidates running for three open seats.
Meanwhile, in the western suburb of Oak Park, the 2011 and 2015 elections did not conflict with public school spring break, when the city recorded voter turnouts of 32.99% and 16.89%, respectively.
“I do think future consideration should be given to try and schedule spring break not during an election,” John Martin, a candidate for District 65 board, told the RoundTable on Monday. “However, due to the importance of the school board election, I hope that our community makes it a priority for election participation.”
Other candidates and elected officials, on the other hand, pointed to a long history of low voter engagement in municipal elections like for school board, and they suggested that the timing of spring break has little to do with the root causes of that problem.
Parsons, for example, said the city and school districts need to do a better job of encouraging voting by educating residents about how school board representatives and City Council members impact their daily lives.
Devon Reid, who represents the Eighth Ward on City Council and previously tracked voter turnouts in his position as city clerk, added that the timing of spring break could even encourage more civic engagement by allowing parents to take their kids with them to the polls.
“I think pointing to spring break as a reason for low turn-out excuses folks who simply do not vote,” said Gretchen Livingston, a longtime ETHS board member. “We all would be better served by asking bigger questions about why Americans do not exercise their right in significant numbers.”