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Primary Problem: Election, schools in conflict in Unicoi Co.

March 15th, 2014 11:52 am by Brad Hicks

Primary Problem: Election, schools in conflict in Unicoi Co.

ERWIN — May 6 is not only the date of the Republican primary, it is also a regular school day for Unicoi County students — a fact that has caused concern among members of the county Election Commission.

Three county schools — Temple Hill Elementary, Rock Creek Elementary and Unicoi County Intermediate — are used as polling places.

Visitors to schools are required to check in at the offices of these facilities, but county Election Commission Chairman Thomas Reeves said more stringent safety measures do not apply to those filing in to the buildings to cast their ballots on election day.

“On election day, there’s none of that,” Reeves said. “You just pull up and walk in. Until you get to one of the poll workers’ tables, you don’t have to show any ID and sign in or identify yourself. You have complete access to schools.”

This increased access and its possible impact on student safety was a topic of discussion at the Election Commission’s Feb. 24 meeting. The discussion prompted the group to send a letter to the county Board of Education requesting that it close schools on the day of the Republican primary.

“Considering the several tragic national incidents involving school students these past few years,” closure is recommended, the commission’s letter said. “We realize and understand that your school calendar is already established, but the Election Commission asks that this request be seriously considered for the enhanced safety of the students who would otherwise be in attendance on that day. As you may be aware, hundreds of voters will be entering these facilities without any reasonable means to conduct security screenings of them or their personal effects.”

But both the school system and Election Commission have run into what Reeves describes as a “Catch-22” situation, as neither entity could make changes this point even if they wanted to.

Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown addressed the commission’s request at Thursday’s board of education meeting. She said that the school calendar is set for the following school year each spring, as evidenced by the board voting to approve the system’s 2014-15 calendar at Thursday’s meeting.

Brown also said there are several state and federal mandates required to be in the school calendar each year. The week of April 28 and the week of May 5 are mandated assessment days for county students.

“Because of these mandates, we cannot close school on May 6,” Brown said.

In a letter to the Election Commission, Brown and school board Chairwoman Renea Jones-Rogers presented options for the commission’s consideration, including the relocation of polling places from county schools to nearby churches and possibly looking to change the date of the primary.

Reeves, who received this letter Friday, said he felt the school system’s response was appropriate, as both the system and Election Commission agree student safety is paramount.

“If they were flexible, believe me, it would be easier for us to change an election date than it is for the school board and Denise Brown to close schools,” Reeves said.

However, the commission is also bound by mandates. Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey said that while local election commissions do have some say on when municipal elections and standalone referendums are held, she said the dates for state, federal and county elections are governed by state code. The statewide date for parties choosing to hold primaries is May 6.

“So there’s no wiggle room,” Reeves said. “Even if they wanted to (close school on May 6), I don’t think they could. We’re sort of trapped in between statutes here, and we’re going to do the best we can with it.”

Bailey also said that even if options for alternate polling places were to present themselves, changes to the set locations could not be made by the Republican primary.

“Probably the biggest reason that would not really be feasible is just trying to get that information out to the voters,” she said. “We, by law, are required to send a notification by mail to every registered voter if there’s a change in their polling place. We’re getting ready to do that, of course, with the voters at Love Chapel because theirs has changed. It’s just a lengthy process to go through and, of course, there’s a fairly significant cost involved.”

Aside from this, Bailey said each polling place in the state must be evaluated to ensure it meets access compliances.

“It’s a pretty lengthy evaluation process to identify a proper polling place, so obviously, when you have an instance like what happened with Love Chapel school where it was an emergency situation, with those things you just have to move as quickly as you can because, otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a polling place, whereas in a non-emergency situation there’s a lot more steps.

“You really have to be thorough, because the last thing you would want to do is to make a change, have an election there, then realize it’s not the best location.”

Love Chapel Elementary’s original location once served as a polling place, but after the school’s closure due to concerns over a sinkhole on the property, the polling place was moved to the fellowship hall of the nearby Love Chapel Christian Church.

Reeves said he and Bailey plan to meet with the county Ministerial Association soon to see what help local churches could offer in transporting handicapped voters to polling places, but he said election officials also intend to inquire about the possibility of having other churches serve as polling places beginning next year.

“We need to find some church facilities that are adequate and are as close as possible to the schools that we use now in order to get out of the school-building business,” Reeves said.

As for this year, Reeves said he plans to ask Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson and county Sheriff Mike Hensley if they may be able to provide extra staff on the date of the Republican primary to assist student-resource officers with school security.

The Election Commission will meet Tuesday, and Reeves said its members will discuss the school system’s letter and stopping the use of county schools as polling places in the future.

“We definitely want to look toward the idea of ‘Let’s get out of the school business,’ ” Reeves said. “I don’t think it’s the correct place for people to go to vote in light of the craziness and the gun violence that’s gone on in this country.”

And Reeves said he hopes the use of schools as polling places becomes a topic of discussion for election commissions throughout the area and country.

“Any county, any city, that uses a school for a polling place needs to address this,” Reeves said. 

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