On April 23, the Vigo County School Board will vote on a proposal to bus high school students to voting sites May 8, primary election day, but they are already receiving some pushback from candidates.
Board President Jackie Lower offered the suggestion at the March 19 meeting; she and board member Alpa Patel had been approached by some community members about the possibility. “I think it would be a good statement that the school corporation certainly encourages students to vote — everybody to vote,” Lower said at the time.
District officials contacted the Indiana School Boards Association, which told them, “There is no legal issue with us taking the students to a voting center since the political process is part of our curriculum,” Superintendent Danny Tanoos stated the next day.
But some concerns have surfaced about the timing of the student busing and why transportation at taxpayers’ expense is not provided to others that may need it, such as for those elderly and disabled who don’t live near voting centers.
Norm Loudermilk, a candidate for the District 43 seat in the Democratic primary, plans to share his concerns with the school board when it votes on the matter. Another candidate in the District 43 Democratic race is Tonya Pfaff, a teacher at Terre Haute North Vigo High School.
Loudermilk said Pfaff’s being a candidate, and a North teacher, is a consideration, but just part of his overall concerns.
There are elderly and disabled citizens in housing complexes such as Garfield Towers, Warren Village and Liberty Village who have no transportation and no voting site nearby. “They are the ones who need to be transported,” he said. “If the the school corporation is going to bus kids, then why aren’t we busing others as well?”
Loudermilk said he wants kids at school to be engaged. “I want a huge voter turnout,” Loudermilk said, “but I don’t know this is the right way.” He has checked with several other school districts throughout Indiana and they don’t provide busing for students to voting sites.
Loudermilk said he was not aware of other instances where the district has offered to bus students to polling sites before. “Why now?” He also questioned why North Vigo students in particular would need to be bused on election day since a voting site will be located next to the school at the National Guard Armory.
“I think using tax dollars to bus children to vote is wasteful government spending. I don’t think we should be doing it,” he said.
Chad Overton, another District 43 Democratic candidate, also questions both the timing and the use of taxpayer dollars in transporting students to voting sites. “They didn’t think it was important to bus students during the presidential election,” he said. “I’m curious why it would happen now ... I think anybody can read between the lines.”
Reacting to the controversy, Pfaff said Wednesday, “Who would not welcome the opportunity to vote against their math teacher. People don’t like math teachers ... No one likes math teachers,” she said.
On a more serious note, she said, “Anything we can do to encourage young people to take part in the democratic process I think is fantastic.”
Lower defends the proposal to bus students.
“The mission of the school board is to create responsible citizens, and I know that students have complained in the past because they have after school activities or work ... and they have not been able to get to the polls or don’t have transportation,” she said.
The idea came from the community. “It was not thought up by the board. It came from outside sources, and people said would you consider doing this. We checked with ISBA and attorneys and they said there is absolutely no problem doing it,” she said.
She anticipated one bus and one trip for each high school — North Vigo, South Vigo and West Vigo.
Asked about potential bias, since Pfaff is a North teacher, Lower’s response is, “the only bias is toward helping our students learn the voting mechanisms.There is no bias toward or for anybody or any group, for heavens’ sake. The bias is to help citizenry to vote. Terre Haute has a horrible record” as far as poor voter turnout.
Encouraging students to vote “I think is essential,” she said. “I’m really excited about giving this opportunity to kids who haven’t had the opportunity before. I trust in them enough at that age that they can make decisions they think are well-founded.”
Loudermilk said he supports the idea of a van, or mobile polling site, that could be used for early voting and taken to the various housing complexes where people otherwise would have difficulty getting to a voting site.
“If we’re going to be spending tax dollars and we really want to do it for the reasons that we want high voter turnout and voter involvement ... then I think we should remember the poor people in this community,” he said.
Asked whether he believes the busing might show some bias toward Pfaff, he said, “I think Tonya Pfaff is a good person and good candidate ... she’s an excellent teacher and deserves everybody’s consideration. I don’t think she had one thing to do with this decision.”
He added, “I do think that some people that are supporting her vocally are making this decision and it doesn’t just concern me,” but other candidates and some office holders as well.
Asked who he believes is vocally supporting Pfaff, he said Jackie Lower and Alpa Patel. “That’s okay to support her. She’s your friend. I get that. That’s not a big deal.”
The issue is bigger than that, he said.
Lower said she does support Pfaff, but that has nothing to do with the proposal to bus students to polling sites. “It came from sources in the community who approached us and said would this be a possibility, and we thought this would be great idea,” she said. “I cannot really understand the criticism.”
Patel also said the proposal to bus students to voting sites wasn’t the board’s idea. Student activism and issues nationwide may have prompted community members to suggest the VCSC provide busing to voting sites, she said.
“It’s within our mission to teach our kids the importance of their right to vote,” Patel said.
If someone is suggesting she has shown bias, Patel would like more specific information to back that up.
Robbie Piper attended Monday’s School Board meeting as a representative of the League of Women Voters. She was there to thank the board on behalf of the league for the decision to bus students to voting sites, but she learned at the meeting the decision will occur April 23.
Speaking as a citizen, and not on behalf of the League, Piper pointed to research that indicates young people who start voting as soon as they can are more likely to become lifelong voters. “As an individual, I think it’s a wonderful idea,” she said, although she wasn’t sure it had generated as much interest at the high schools as initially thought, although that could change with several weeks remaining before the election.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.