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Elections may be over, but not the responsibility

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by Stan Zoller, MJE

In many states, communities recently elected or re-elected candidates to a multitude of government bodies from city council to township trustees to school boards.

Sadly, voter turnout in local elections is traditionally low – very low – as people are as about as interested in their local officials as a chocoholic is in vanilla.

From a civics standpoint, it’s disappointing. From a civic education standpoint, it’s just plain miserable. Imagine teaching students the importance being a responsible steward of the electoral process when the majority of people don’t seem to care.

The lessons associated with local elections, specifically school board elections, can be split into two simple steps. Before and after.

unrecognizable colleagues during workday in contemporary office

Coverage by student journalists before a school board election is an essential part of covering the community. After all, scholastic journalism is, in essence, community journalism. School boards should be covered on a regular basis as they need to be held accountable to all stakeholders from taxpayers to students.

Coverage by student journalists before a school board election is an essential part of covering the community. After all, scholastic journalism is, in essence, community journalism. School boards should be covered on a regular basis as they need to be held accountable to all stakeholders from taxpayers to students.

As part of this process, student journalists should receive the same information from candidates as other media outlets do. In fact, it’s essential because no group is impacted more by a school board than students.

And yes, it can make a difference. In my last post I mentioned a school publication that came under attack for commenting on a couple of school board candidates whose platforms, wrote the student, were not in the best interest of the school district. Fortunately, both candidates were not elected.

In another community, the yearbook adviser and staff are facing scrutiny for the content of the yearbook because one of the staff members did a spread about Black Lives Matters. The original objection was not by an administrator or school board member, but by a citizen who got the ear of the superintendent, school board members and principal.

Not a stellar example of civic engagement.

But while elections end with the counting of the ballots and certification of results, the importance of an election is just beginning. Candidates who plastered lawns, mailboxes and social media with campaign promises, now need to make do on their promises. Quite often the one word that goes by the wayside after an election is transparency.

This is the aforementioned second part of the lessons associated with elections — the post part. It’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric of a campaign which quite often makes for interesting reporting. 

But, as noted, the challenge begins after the election and those who promised a chicken in every pot deliver. It can be a challenge for student media to keep tabs on a candidate over the course of a two- or four-year term as staffs change. School Board, and for that matter City Council / Village Board coverage should be a staple for the scholastic press. In large cities such as Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, it may be more prudent to monitor the activities of aldermanic, representatives whose wards serve the school. In the case of school boards, many large cities have local school councils that in essence serve a similar function as aldermanic wards.

Whatever the arrangement, it’s important to hold representatives accountable. This has become a bigger issue as it seems as if most school districts are grappling with issues surrounding in-person or virtual learning.

The impact of COVD-19 on students has been a hotly debated issue and in many school board elections served as the impetus for some people to run. Student journalists should make sure they have source files on not only a school board, but its members as well so the public can monitor positions of those elected. 

Coverage, to say the least, is essential. Advisers should make sure students know how access the full agenda for each meeting so they have the background material. Many, if not most, board meetings are being held virtually making it easy for student media to cover so they can see what is being discussed and what positions board members may have on an issue.

It may seem mundane, but holding public officials accountable and transparent not only benefits all of the stakeholders it’s an important responsibility of student media to ensure that their readers are well informed.

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