Gazette analysis: Many school employees didn't vote in last school board election

Participation higher in Iowa City than Cedar Rapids, data show

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Less than half of employees of the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts voted in a 2013 Linn or Johnson County school board election. Moreover, employees of the Iowa City district were about twice as likely to vote as those in Cedar Rapids, a Gazette analysis has found.

Voter participation rates among employees in both districts were more than three times the participation rates among residents overall of the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts.

In Cedar Rapids, where critics of the district have said they don't feel administrators or board members are engaged with school buildings or the public, 19 percent of employees who were registered voters cast a vote in the 2013 school election.

In Iowa City, where school board meetings often are packed and concerned parents debate educational issues on Facebook daily, the rate was 41 percent.

The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts are among the biggest governmental and taxing entities in Linn and Johnson counties. The Iowa City school board in May approved a roughly $223 million budget for 2015-16. The Cedar Rapids board in April approved a roughly $311 million budget for this school year.

Public engagement has been an issue in both districts' school board races leading up to Tuesday's election. A majority of seats on both boards are up for grabs this year.

Mary Meisterling, the Cedar Rapids school board president who is running unopposed this year, said she was disappointed with the turnout rate among Cedar Rapids school employees and thought it would be significantly higher.

The school board represents an employee's “boss's boss's boss,” Meisterling noted.

“The board has a direct impact on their employment, and I think they'd be more engaged than a statehouse race or a federal race,” she said. “I sure would vote” if she were an employee. Meisterling voted in the 2013 election.

Different dynamics

But Tuyet Baruah, an Iowa City school board member who is resigning after this week's election, cautioned against drawing too wide of conclusions about voter activism or apathy based on matching school employees with one election. She also said Iowa City and Cedar Rapids school employees should not be compared.

“There are different populations and dynamics between the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids districts,” said Baruah, who is taking a new education job. “Both are wonderful school districts.”

To perform the analysis, The Gazette compared lists of school district employees for the 2013-14 academic year with a database of registered voters in Linn and Johnson counties.

Because The Gazette had addresses for Iowa City schools employees, reporters were able to compare names and addresses to increase the likelihood of an accurate match.

The voter database does not show how a person voted — just whether he or she participated in the election. The Gazette included school employees who were registered to vote or voted in any Linn or Johnson County school board election, not just the one for the district in which the employee worked.

Cedar Rapids

About 16 percent of 2,633 Cedar Rapids Community School District employees voted in a Linn or Johnson County school election on Sept. 10, 2013, according to The Gazette's analysis. Among employees who were registered to vote, the participation rate was about 19 percent.

Among Cedar Rapids school principals at the time, the voter participation rate was 38 percent. The Gazette removed five principals from the calculation because their names appeared more than once in the voter database and it was difficult to tell which voter was the correct match.

The fact that two of the three seats up for election in 2013 were uncontested might have led to a lower turnout, Meisterling said.

That year, four candidates ran for three board seats. Gary Anhalt, who ran unopposed, got 95 percent of the vote. Nancy Humbles, also without rival, garnered 96.3 percent.

In the only contested race, for District 3, Keith Westercamp beat Lawrence Wenclawski with 64.7 percent of the vote.

David Benson, the former Cedar Rapids school superintendent who retired this year, said the turnout rate among school employees indicated employees were satisfied with the school board's leadership.

Benson, who lived in the Linn-Mar Community School District, did not vote in the 2013 school election, according to voting records.

Cedar Rapids voters defeated a proposed physical plant and equipment levy (PPEL) with 57 percent of the vote in 2013, but did renew a 6-cent equipment levy for Kirkwood Community College.

School employees passing up a chance to vote on PPEL makes Meisterling even more disappointed. The tax — which funds school construction projects — directly affects school workers, she said.

Allen Witt, the Cedar Rapids school board vice president who is running against Rafael Jacobo this year, said he supports combining school and city elections. City elections now are held in November.

“If we can make it more convenient, where people don't have to make multiple trips to the voting booth, I'm all for that,” Witt said.

He also suggested sending absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters.

“We're not going to change how people act in elections unless we do something proactive,” Witt said.

Iowa City

About 31 percent of 1,541 Iowa City Community School District employees voted in a Johnson or Linn county school election on Sept. 10, 2013, according to The Gazette's analysis. Of 1,439 Iowa City school employees in 2013-14 who appeared to live in Johnson or Linn counties, 33.2 percent voted in the 2013 school election.

When looking solely at Iowa City school employees registered to vote in Johnson or Linn counties, the share of 2013 voters jumped to 41.3 percent.

This is compared to 11.86 percent of all registered voters who turned out for the 2013 Iowa City school vote.

Superintendent Stephen Murley said he's not surprised Iowa City school employees voted at a higher rate than the general public.

“I'm pleased to see their investment in the schools goes beyond the paycheck,” Murley said. “They have a great deal of passion for what they do.”

Murley, a former social studies teacher, voted in both school elections since he was hired in 2010.

“I don't think I've missed an election since I was able to vote,” Murley said. “My mother was a teacher and she dragged me along to vote. I was always the second set of legs sticking out below the voting booth.”

Interest in Iowa City's 2013 election was fueled by a series of high-profile issues, including a controversial diversity policy and the approval of a facilities plan that called for the construction of four new schools and the future closure of Hoover Elementary.

Nine candidates vied for three seats on the Iowa City school board, with Baruah, Chris Lynch and Brian Kirschling coming out on top.

Nearly three-quarters of Iowa City voters reauthorized a PPEL rate of $1.34 for each $1,000 of taxable property value.

The 2013 overall turnout topped the district's previous record of 10.83 percent in 1995. Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert had to send more ballots to precincts in the early afternoon of Sept. 10, 2013, and Coralville ran out of ballots and had to make photocopies.

Iowa City High Principal John Bacon, who grew up in Iowa City, said the community has a history of school engagement.

“In a college town, you have a lot of people to whom school is important,” he said.

Bacon himself voted in four of the five last school elections. He was among 17 of 21 Iowa City principals who live in Johnson County who voted in a 2013 school election, the Gazette review showed.

“I try to take time to learn about the issues,” Bacon said. “It would be irresponsible for a school leader not to pay attention.”

Most 2015 board candidates voted in last school election

Most 2015 candidates for the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school boards voted in the 2013 school board election, a Gazette review of voting records found.

All four Cedar Rapids school board incumbents up for re-election this year — John Laverty, Mary Meisterling, Ann Rosenthal and Allen Witt — voted in the Cedar Rapids school board election on Sept. 10, 2013, Linn County voting records show.

But the three non-incumbents running this year — Todd Cohenour, Rafael Jacobo and Kristin Janssen — did not vote, according to the records.

Cohenour said he chose not to vote because he did not agree with any of the candidates.

Attempts to reach Jacobo and Janssen on Thursday were unsuccessful.

In Iowa City, all but one of the 13 school board candidates this year voted in the 2013 school election, according to the Gazette analysis.

Todd Fanning of North Liberty did not vote in the Iowa City Community School District election, also held on Sept. 10, 2013, according to records from the Johnson County Auditor. County records show Fanning became a registered voter in the county July 6 of this year.

“I didn't register to vote because I simply did not know any of the issues and was quite busy with my job and settling into a new home,” Fanning said. “I realized I hadn't registered yet when I decided to run for the school board.”

Fanning moved to the Corridor in 2012 to become chief financial officer at the University of Iowa Community Credit Union. He joined the school district's budget advisory committee that year.

He served on the Spring Valley, Ill., board of education for 14 years before moving to Iowa.

Iowa City school board candidates who did vote in the 2013 school election, according to voter records, are LaTasha DeLoach (as LaTasha Massey), Shawn Eyestone, Phil Hemingway, Jason Lewis, Chris Liebig, Brian Richman, Paul Roesler, Lori Roetlin, Megan Schwalm, Lucas Van Orden, Brianna Wills and Tom Yates.

Investigation methodology: How we matched school employees with voter records

To examine what share of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school employees voted in the most recent school board election, The Gazette ran a multiphase analysis involving four public databases totaling about 250,000 records.

First, we requested from the Linn County and Johnson County auditors lists of registered voters and whether those people voted in the Sept. 10, 2013, school board election.

We also asked the Cedar Rapids Community School District and the Iowa City Community School District for lists of employees in the 2013-2014 school year. We wanted the lists to include the employee's name, address, position and primary building, but the Cedar Rapids district provided only names and positions.

The employee lists sometimes included a person's name more than once if, for example, an employee was a math teacher but also coached a school basketball team. We removed any duplicate names before starting our analysis.

We merged the Linn and Johnson voter information into one spreadsheet. We then matched the names in the school employee spreadsheet with all the voter names to see if school employees voted in the last school board election. This included employees who voted in that election in any school district in Linn or Johnson county, not just the one in which the employee worked.

The technique we used is called deduping, and the program we used is called csvdedupe, which was created by DataMade, a civic technology company based in Chicago.

All the code that ran this analysis is available on our GitHub page: https://github.com/GazetteKCRGdata/data-processing.

Because we had addresses for Iowa City schools employees, we were able to compare names and addresses to increase the likelihood of an accurate match. For the Cedar Rapids query, we could match with first and last names only.

Octav Chipara, a University of Iowa computer science professor familiar with these types of analyses, said matching on names only can render false positives because of common names, such as Ann Smith or John Miller. “If people had unique names, you wouldn't have much of a problem,” he said. “For more common names, you won't know which ones (are a match).”

The Gazette attempted to control for this by removing 367 Cedar Rapids school district employees from the analysis because the voter database contained more than one of each of those names and we weren't sure which record was a correct match. After we removed those employees, the voting rate was very similar to the one from our original analysis.

We also ran the Iowa City analysis with only names — not addresses — just to see if it was vastly different from the matches made with addresses, but it was very similar.

Finally, because we had the addresses of the Iowa City schools employees, we analyzed the ZIP codes of those employees whose names and addresses did not match with the registered voters database and found 102 employees whose ZIP codes made it unclear whether they lived in Linn or Johnson counties.

We removed those employees from our analysis, since we were not sure whether they had voted in another county that was not included in our database.

The Gazette's digital news product manager Max Freund contributed to this story.

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