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Security concerns keeping voters out of schools

Safety issues mean fewer votes cast at schools; some close on Election Day

Fewer schools are being used as polling places in the region, mostly because of security concerns.

Some districts where schools are used as polling locations, including Kettering and New Lebanon, will close on Election Day as a safety precaution. Many schools lock their doors daily after the opening bell, which isn’t possible if there is a polling place on the premises.

“In the end, I take student safety very seriously and we’re going to do everything we can to keep our students secure,” New Lebanon Superintendent Greg Williams said.

County boards of election, by law, can use schools for elections, but it’s becoming a rarity to vote in the same buildings where kids study government and history. Fewer than one in five polling places in eight area counties are housed in schools.

“We used to be in schools. They asked us to leave,” said Brian Sleeth, director of the Warren County Board of Elections. “It was about student safety, voters being in the same area as students.”

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Graham Middle School opened a new building several years ago in St. Paris and it was used as a polling place for a primary election. It turned out to be a one-time deal.

“It did not work out for us at all,” said Meredith Bodey, director of the Champaign County Board of Elections. “People were up in arms about safety for the kids and didn’t want us in there.”

Most county boards of elections have been flexible with the districts and relocated polling places when they could. But it can be difficult some cases to find locations that have enough space and are handicap-accessible.

Some in Ohio have called for legislation that would make Election Day a holiday for schools, which would free them up for elections. It’s not unheard of; Kentucky public schools are not open when voters cast ballots.

“They’re suppose to accommodate us, but we decided for now to respect everybody’s wishes,” Sleeth said. “We absolutely have the law on our side. We’ve been very lenient. I want to see legislation.”

Jan Kelly, the director in Montgomery County, helps oversee 177 polling locations. Twenty-two of them are in schools. There used to be many more and she said “it’s a challenge for us to find locations.”

“We’re seeing (the trend) but we’re not accepting it as readily as some other counties are,” Kelly said. “We’re pushing for legislation to try to have schools closed on Election Day.”

Schools closed

Some counties, like Miami and Champaign, don’t have a single polling place in schools. Greene and Preble counties each have one, and Preble pays for a deputy to be stationed at its school voting spot.

Butler County has 52 polling places in schools — more than the rest of the region combined — but its schools are off on Election Day. Monroe superintendent Phil Cagwin said that’s been the case for several years. The day is marked as a professional development day.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with Hillary or Donald and the negativity,” he said.

Monroe’s main campus is a polling place, and Cagwin said school is in session during the rare special election.

“That’s something we never used to worry about years ago, but as you have more incidents of violence, you are more vigilant,” Cagwin said. “We make sure the entrance to the building is one entrance only and (voters) don’t have access to the rest of the building.”

Locked schools

A check of 47 area school calendars shows that Kettering and New Lebanon schools are the only districts in Montgomery County that will be closed Nov. 8.

This will be the first time Kettering will not hold classes on Election Day, said school spokeswoman Kari Basson. Three of the district’s schools, including Fairmont High School, are used as polling places.

Basson said all of the district’s building are locked when school is in session, a policy that played into the decision.

“You can’t do that on Election Day,” she said. “You have to leave doors unlocked when you’re a polling place. All of our buildings are locked and you have to be buzzed in.

“Our policy in how we secure our buildings certainly came into play in making the decision.”

Basson said the district has spoken “on numerous occasions” with the county board of elections in an attempt to have two elementary schools buildings removed from the roster of polling places.

Williams said the decision to not hold classes in New Lebanon on Election Day was made prior to the 2014 election.

“It goes with our school safety plan,” he said. “When we have elections in the school we have a lot of people coming in and it lowers our security. We thought it would be best to have that day a day without students.”

Safety first

In Clark County, Greenon schools will be closed on Election Day. Superintendent Brad Silvus said the district’s Enon building was open during elections a few years ago, but safety concerns prompted a policy change. Now the entire district is off for a a professional development day.

“There’s really no other location in the Enon area where they could go that had the accessibilty they needed, and it is a central location,” Silvus said. “We’re a small community and we try to work with the board of elections to accommodate as best we can. We’ll be doing the same thing in May during the primary.”

Miami County elections director Beverly Kendall has worked on the board for 18 years. She remembers when it was common for schools to serve as polling places.

“Gradually over the past 10 years we’ve gotten out of schools,” she said. “It’s difficult to find places that are handicap-accessible, and a lot of schools are.”

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