Election schools closure rejected Date for charter vote conflicts with state testing for 5th-graders

March 18, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The county Board of Education refused last night to close schools for a special May 5 election on charter government.

But the board will meet at 7 a.m. tomorrow to decide whether to close April 28 instead.

Without use of the schools, the county would be hard pressed to hold an election on the question of charter government before May 7, a federally mandated deadline.

If charter government is approved in the referendum, it would take effect in 30 days and change the county's form of government from three commissioners to an executive and county council.

The charter board handed the document to the commissioners Feb. 13. The state constitution gives officials 120 days from that date to schedule a special election since no general election occurs during the time frame.

Officials originally chose June 9, when schools were closed. They soon discovered that date was too late for prospective candidates to meet filing deadlines, should the charter win voter approval. The commissioners moved the date to May 5 last week and asked Brian C. Lockard, superintendent of schools, to close schools.

Lockard had quickly polled area schools for any possible problems created by the closing. During the week of May 4, fifth-grade students throughout the county will be involved in statewide performance tests. Local schools cannot start testing earlier or later than the schedule that is set by state education officials.

"The only option is take five days of testing in four," Lockard said. "It's doable, but would I recommend it?"

Compressing the test into four days would put Carroll students, who traditionally score high, at a disadvantage, Lockard said. He did not recommend closing May 5.

The board met in special session last night to consider redistricting issues and, since a calendar issue must be addressed in public session, added the election date to the agenda.

With three unused snow days remaining in the school calendar, schools can be closed for an election. When Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown heard of the problems with May 5, he suggested April 28. Lockard said he needed at least a day to discuss the new date with his staff and administrators.

April 28 would be "cutting it close, but we can meet it," said Patricia Matsko, election board director. "We have been preparing for an election all along."

But, if she is to have ballots printed and the election organized, she must have a firm date before the end of this week, she said.

Commissioner Richard T. Yates, who opposes both charter government and a special election, pushed for a Saturday election on May 2. Most elections are held on Tuesdays.

"This is a special election and won't be that well attended anyway," Yates said.

About 10,000 county voters go to polling places at fire halls and churches, many of which have already booked events for May 2, Matsko said.

"We would have to find other places to accommodate 10,000 voters, places that are handicapped accessible," said Richard Titus, attorney to the elections board.

It also would be difficult to notify voters of the change in polling places, Matsko said.

"Voters are used to going to their own polling places," she said.

The only other option is an unprecedented mail-in vote. Brown said he fears voters will mistake ballots for junk mail and toss them out.

"Our choices are made for us as far as timing this election," Brown said. "I am strongly urging the school board to acquiesce to April 28 so we can get on with the election in the most normal fashion."

New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr., who helped write the charter, said if the county does not schedule an election, it could face serious consequences.

"The state Constitution says we have to have an election within a certain time frame," Gullo said. "This is not a case of 'If it suits, we will do it.' It is state law."

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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