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updated: 4/18/2014 5:07 PM

Kane Co. officials urge school closings on election days

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Local school buildings seem an ideal place to set up as polling places. They tend to be in convenient, walkable locations. They have ample parking. They are accessible to voters with various physical disabilities.

But the main occupants of school buildings -- students -- are also the biggest liability. So, some Kane County officials are getting behind a bill aimed at facilitating the closing of schools on Election Day.

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Mingling students in the same building with crowds of strangers is an environment Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham became uncomfortable with in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings. Cunningham sought to beef up security in schools on election days by adding a police presence.

"We'd hoped to get some volunteers to do it for free, but union rules didn't allow for that," Cunningham said.

Staffing school-based polling places in Kane County now comes with an added taxpayer cost of $16,000 for the two elections usually held each year.

Cunningham uses 17 schools as polling places on election days with as many as four precincts casting ballots per school. Roughly a quarter of all Kane County voters cast ballots in schools. Cunningham would like to increase that number as the county population grows.

There are 206 school buildings in the county. But each new school polling place means more police and a higher cost to run the elections.

The convenience of schools as polling places was a campaign issue during the March primary contest for county clerk between Cunningham and county board member Mark Davoust. Davoust spoke in favor of using schools on the campaign trail. And Cunningham agreed it was a good idea. Now there's pending state legislation that may make schools an even more inviting polling place by removing the cost and need for police.

The Illinois House approved a bill April 2 that would encourage, but not require, school districts to shutter schools on election days or host teacher institute days so students won't be in attendance when voters are present. The bill, HB5755, now awaits action in the Illinois Senate.

Members of the county board's Public Service Committee spoke in favor of sending a resolution of support for the bill to Springfield this week.

Mark Klaisner, Kane County assistant regional superintendent of schools, told board members the wording of the bill to "encourage" school closures or institute days is weak. Likewise, his office also doesn't have the authority to impose the timing of scheduled nonattendance or teacher institute days on local school districts.

That said, every school district has four institute days every school year. That allows for some flexibility to line institute days up with election days, Klaisner said.

"It would be easy to plan because we know well in advance when elections days will be," Klaisner said. "But the right to establish a school working calendar resides with the individual districts."

Cunningham agreed the wording of the bill could be stronger. But a state law encouraging a better pairing of election and institute days may still have enough clout to force some change, he said.

"I have been working on this for about 10 years," Cunningham said. "Right now, it looks like the iron is hot. And we sure would like to save $16,000 of election costs for our taxpayers."

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