Despite what was described as a “post-Columbine age” of heightened concern over school safety, Forest Park elementary schools have chosen to hold classes on election day rather than shut down and use local schools exclusively as polling places.
The District 91 board decided last week against a recommendation from Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office to close school for the upcoming general elections on Nov. 7 and future election days.
The recommendation, which is already followed by many schools in the county including Oak Park District 97, calls for schools to either take the day off or schedule a teacher’s institute on Election Day.
“This is sort of reflective of the post-Columbine age,” said Orr spokesman Scott Burnham. He said that over the past few years, several area school districts have reported concern from parents regarding the safety of their children when coming in contact with strangers on Election Day.
Burnham also noted that by closing schools, more parking is made available to voters and teachers are able to work as election judges.
District 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder opposed the recommendation.
“We’re not in the business of running elections, we’re trying to have school,” he said, also expressing concerns about the inconveniences for parents that would result from closing on Election Day, which will fall on a Tuesday in November.
He said that the district had never experienced any problems with voters interacting with children, which is not at all unusual, according to Burnham.
“Security has actually never been compromised on Election Day at a school. There hasn’t been a single incident,” he said.
In the past, District 91 has employed an off duty police officer to supervise elections at the Grant-White, Betsy Ross and Garfield elementary schools, where voting typically has taken place in halls, classrooms or gymnasiums where students could come in contact with voters.
Voting at Field Stevenson has been conducted without extra security since at that building voters were kept isolated from students, though Tinder recommended that the district consider employing a security guard there as well.
Still, Tinder said that the patience of some District 91 principals has worn thin due to the difficulty of hosting an election and a school day at once.
“Some election judges are demanding. They want use of our coffee machines, microwaves, fax machines” etc., he said.
In one case, he said, classes had to be moved because an election required more space than expected. At Garfield, the downstairs bathrooms had to be closed to ensure that no voters ended up in the bathroom with students.
In addition, school board members noted that the atmosphere surrounding elections has changed in recent years, with poll watchers becoming more active and intrusive, often violating county regulations that require them to remain 100 feet away from the polling station.
“I don’t want to name names, but how many times do you have to see one guy’s name?” said board member Glenn Garlisch.
“This year was particularly bad,” added Tinder.
In the end, the board decided to seek out other options besides closing the schools.
“If we could do something to alleviate the tension around the polling places, we should try that first. Then we could talk about canceling school if that doesn’t work. That’s a pretty drastic thing to do,” he said.
Board member Steve Johnsen suggested asking the village to step up enforcement of its restrictions on campaign signs on public property as a deterrent against overzealous poll watchers.
Village Administrator Michael Sturino said this was unlikely to occur.
“We’re reluctant to get involved in elections by removing signs on Election Day,” he said “Before Election Day we remove plenty of signs, but I think there are exceptions around election time. We need to be cognizant of people’s constitutional rights.”
Burnham said the county is willing to accommodate school districts that would rather not close on Election Day.
“That’s fine with us…we’re just making the suggestion,” he said. “A lot of times schools really enjoy participating because the kids get to see democracy in action.”