Some districts oppose schools as voting places, cite Sandy Hook slayings
Some school board members are worried about more than getting enough votes on Election Day.
Officials in three Allegheny County school districts are joining others across the state and nationwide in an attempt to remove polling places from schools because of safety concerns.
The goal could be a difficult fight, with few allies among county or state lawmakers.
“We buzz everybody into our buildings. We don't just allow people to walk in freely,” said Anthony Angotti, president of West Jefferson Hills School Board. “The polling place is allowing the community to freely walk into our buildings that we have no control over.”
West Jefferson Hills, Bethel Park and Chartiers Valley officials asked the county Board of Elections to send voters elsewhere. State election law gives county boards final say on where to put polls, though it calls schools a preferred place.
The West Jefferson Hills board passed a resolution this week asking lawmakers to change the law.
At least four states are considering to limit polls in schools.
“The community school represents a gathering place on Election Day, of people going to their neighborhood schools, often within walking distance, to exercise their franchise,” said County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, a Republican from Mt. Lebanon who sits on the Board of Elections with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Councilman John DeFazio. “I'm disappointed that some districts would not want to remain part of that.”
Heidelbaugh and DeFazio, a Shaler Democrat, said moving polls would cost money to inform voters, many of whom have cast ballots in the same place for years.
Several lawmakers said schools could be closed for primary and general elections. Students in West Jefferson Hills have three days off the week before the May 21 primary.
“These are public buildings paid for by the taxpayers. There has to be a convenient, handicapped-accessible place to vote,” said Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Coraoplis, who received an email from Chartiers Valley school officials about their concerns. “I don't know what the alternative is.”
Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, said the decision should remain with county election officials.
The “new era of security” that began with 9/11 and is reinforced by recent tragedies across the nation makes it “entirely appropriate to reconsider safety issues across the board for our schools,” said Maher, who was contacted by Bethel Park Superintendent Nancy Rose. “Having said that, up until now, voting at public schools has been and is as American as apple pie.”
Rose and others cite the Dec. 14 killings of 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., as the latest reason to secure schools.
“It seems an unnecessary risk to open schools to uncontrolled mass access,” said Rose, whose district hosts polls in six of eight schools. The district is closed for the May 21 primary but wants to relocate polls for the November general election and beyond.
Schools in Cumberland County might ask to remove polling places, and districts in Illinois, Indiana, New York and Virginia have asked lawmakers to consider removing polls from schools.
“It makes absolutely no sense that we spend ... millions of dollars for security equipment, staffing, door hardware and training of people to control access in schools, and then once or twice a year we open up the schools to anyone and everyone,” said Ken Trump, president of consultant firm Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.
Trump said some schools are closed for elections or hire extra security.
Brian White, superintendent at Chartiers Valley, called such alternatives expensive and disruptive.
Eleven Washington County schools are listed as polling places. One Washington school board member who is a member of the county elections division said there are few alternatives.
“It's easy to say, ‘Take (polls) out of the schools,' but where else are you going to go?” said board member Troy Breese. “I think it's just a knee-jerk reaction.”
Westmoreland County Elections Director James Montini said people in 35 precincts vote at schools, and none of the districts has asked to move polls.
Staff writers Megan Guza and Stephanie Hacke contributed. David Conti and Matthew Santoni are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Conti at 412-388-5802 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Santoni at 412-380-5625 or email@example.com.