Split Decision

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It’s business as usual at the weekly meeting of Community School Board 26. Assembled at Intermediate School 74 in Bayside, Queens, the nine-member grouplistens to the director of the district’s drug-prevention program describe his effort.

At lecture’s end, board member Sachi Dastidar offers a unique perspective. In the one-fifth of district households that are South Asian, Dastidar says, talking about drugs is taboo, so educators must tread carefully. He stops momentarily to rub his tired eyes with the heels of his hands, searching for a way to illustrate his point. “In my culture, even a grown man would not dream of smoking or drinking in front of his parents,” he says.

Dastidar, who was born in Calcutta, India, and elected to the board in 1996, often pursues issues that aren’t on the meetings’ agendas. The difference between his merely being a concerned parent and becoming one of the first two South Asian elected officials in New York City was four votes out of 5,024. But had that election been held under a new and controversial set of voting rules approved last summer, Dastidar’s fellow board members wouldn’t hear his insights– because he wouldn’t have been elected.

On the recommendation of the Task Force on the New York City Community School Board Elections, the state legislature eliminated a long-standing system that distributes votes proportionally among school board candidates. The hope was that a standard winner-takes-all ballot format would increase declining turnout. But minority and immigrant groups, who have long used school boards as political forums and springboards to higher office, said the switch would hurt their election chances in districts where their numbers are diluted.

The Justice Department agreed and in early February struck down the law, saying that the shift would diminish the influence of minority voters without guaranteeing a higher turnout. The agency’s jurisdiction, however, was limited to the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan; in Queens and Staten Island, the law is still in effect.

With a May 4 vote fast approaching, city election officials, potential candidates and the groups who help them are wondering what happens next. “Everyone’s so stressed out about this,” says Judith Baum, who works with candidates at the non-profit Public Education Association. “Everything’s still up in the air.”

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The election system used to select New York City’s 32 school boards, known as “proportional representation,” is uncommon in the United States, employed only in the city and in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The school board elections are further distinguished by allowing non-citizens to vote. “This voting system is good for minority people. It’s easier to get a candidate elected,” says Morshed Alam, a Bangladeshi school board member in south-east Queens.”Representation is important, and this gives us a chance.”

Under the system, voters list their top nine preferences for a district’s candidates–who usually run on slates–on a paper ballot. The threshold for victory is 10 percent of the ballots cast. Extra votes a candidate receives beyond that go to the person ranked second on a voter’s ballot until that candidate reaches the 10 percent threshold, and so on. This vote cascade continues down the line until the nine-person board is chosen. With the vote transfer from one candidate to another, contenders from smaller voter blocs receive more votes than they otherwise would have.

After some widely publicized incidents of corruption, in 1996 the school boards were stripped of their most important duties, including the power to hire principals and directly appoint superintendents. Still, members of underrepresented groups see school boards as important political posts. For example, the only Asian Americans who hold elected office in New York State, 11 in total, are all city school board members. Board slots can also be trampolines: Alam parlayed his board position into 40 percent of the general vote last year in an unsuccessful bid for state senator.

“It’s an important opportunity for parents to have a say in educational policy,” says Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It’s a first step for politicians entering the arena, and for immigrant parents it’s an entry in both” education and politics.

For blacks and Latinos, who often live in neighborhoods where they make up a sizable part of the community, proportional representation doesn’t always matter as much. All the same, it can also provide a turning point for a neighborhood’s political growth. City Councilmember Guillermo Linares started his public career in 1983 as a school board member, at a time when Inwood’s now-established Dominican community was still growing. “Blacks, Latinos and Asians are diluted in [some] districts,” says Linares, who is Dominican. “Minorities stand to lose a lot if they lose proportional representation.”

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If city education officials had their way, proportional representation would go the way of the dollar subway token. The task force assembled to make the vote more popular recommended using voting machines, limiting voters to four candidate choices and eliminating the transfer of extra votes. “The current system of proportional voting, with its paper ballots, is not understandable,” says Alan Garter, executive director of the task force and a CUNY professor of educational psychology. “It is very different from the elections people are accustomed to.”

The prevailing view in Garter’s group is that voter confusion has led to steadily declining participation in school board elections, from 14 percent of eligible voters in 1970 to 5 percent in 1996, when the task force was formed. After holding meetings throughout the city and interviewing parents, school board members and district superintendents, the task force concluded that all ethnic groups disliked proportional voting–but particularly, the task force took pains to observe, recent immigrants who were unfamiliar with voting.

Many education advocates disagree. They cite a jump in voters in 1993–the year of the Rainbow Curriculum and Heather Has Two Mommies–as proof that more publicity and voter education can bring people to the polls. And they contend that the Board of Elections is anxious to get rid of a complex system that requires tallying by hand; in the last election three years ago, it took nearly a month to get the final count.

“The implication that minority voters can’t do this is racist,” says Kathleen Berger, president of School Boards for Equity, Accountability and Community, a coalition of school board members that recruits and trains candidates. “The confusion is not in the vote but the tally. The Board of Elections just doesn’t seem to know how to count them.”

The Justice Department was also unconvinced. As part of its mandate to enforce civil rights in designated problem zones nationwide, the agency has to approve any election-law changes in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. It saw no evidence that the new system would increase voter turnout. But one result was clear to investigators: Underrepresented groups would have a harder time getting elected. The feds calculated that the threshold for winning would jump from 10 percent of ballots cast to 31 percent.

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The Justice Department decision has plunged the upcoming school board elections into a state of confusion. Technically, election officials can still use the new system in Queens and Staten Island. And meanwhile, city lawyers are asking the agency to reconsider its decision. “I am alarmed at the thought that this ruling might preclude an improved electoral process for the Community School Board elections scheduled for this May,” Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew wrote in a prepared statement.

In late February, the city’s Commissioners of Elections crowded into a small conference room, trying to choose between using the old system citywide or in only the three boroughs where they had to. Taking a cue from Cambridge, which uses scannable ballots, the city started talking to scanner vendors. Board president Doug Kellner hoped to plow through the city’s convoluted contracts process by May. “If we move quickly, it can be done, but we have to have the will to do it and get all the little details out of the way,” he said. “We could do it.”

But his fellow commissioners weren’t so motivated. One suggested they postpone the May elections, while another wanted to use both systems. Another was sleeping. The final, accepted suggestion was to table the discussion for a week.

Until the city makes up its mind, candidates and the advocates who work with them aren’t sure how to proceed. Their confusion is making this election hard for unseasoned contenders, who will need different strategies depending on which system prevails. Proportional representation, for example, rewards cooperation between candidates. “Grassroots candidates face obstacles without guidance,” says Judith Baum. “We would hold a seminar if we knew what was going to happen, [but] we need to know which way to do it.”

Ultimately, the Board of Elections faces the same quandary, except that it has to take the leap first. Predicting that a final decision will come down to the wire, board staff are simultaneously preparing to run the election on the new system with machines and the old way with paper. “We are going forward with both elections,” says board deputy executive director Margaret Ognibene. “We are not certain how it’s going to be conducted. We are in limbo land.”

Ezequiel Minaya is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.