The vote which is meant to determine the future of most public schools in New Zealand has reached its lowest-ever turnout on record — with only around 1 in 5 electors choosing to have their say in the most recent school board of trustee elections.

Preliminary figures obtained by Tearaway through the Official Information Act show that national turnout for this year’s school board elections has reached 20.9 percent — down seven percent from around a decade ago.

The low turnout comes as the government has unveiled a set of school reforms that have suggested stripping school boards of significant legal power. 

What does the data show? 

Auckland was the region with the lowest turnout, at only 18.9 percent; however, this was still an improvement of around one percent on numbers from the previous triennial elections in 2016.

In contrast, one in four voted in Southland where turnout was 25 percent, making it the highest turnout region. This was however still down three percent from years prior.

The Ministry of Education’s acting deputy secretary of sector enablement and support, Coralanne Child said in a statement that the Ministry was looking at changing the rules to make participating in the elections easier.

“It’s important that communities have a say in their local school which is why it’s disappointing that participation in these elections continues to be so low.”

“We are looking to change the rules to make the process of participating easier”, she continued.

That was contrasted by the New Zealand School Trustees Association’s (NZSTA) Mike Wiles who said there wasn’t necessarily a problem in the low turnout. The NZSTA is the organisation tasked with coordinating and advertising trustee elections.

“These days most schools are pretty well governed by their board, in a genuine partnership with the school principal.”

“That means that there’s not always a lot of motivation for parents to get out and vote if they’re reasonably happy with the status quo”

“In a perfect world, […] we’d like to see more community engagement in schools on several fronts including school trustee elections […] but we don’t regard the low voter turnout as any cause for panic”, Wiles said. 

Wait, what do these boards even do?

All of New Zealand’s public schools have a board of trustees, which are made up of around half a dozen elected parent representatives, along with the principal and a singular staff representative. Secondary schools are also mandated to have a student representative.

In their current operation, these board members are given vast powers over the running of a school. They set school rules, in-zone boundaries, maintain school infrastructure, choose what teachers to hire, select principals, and handle all disputes including suspensions and expulsions. 

Most schools are scheduled to hold elections every three years, with a small minority choosing to hold staggered “midterm” elections every two years. 

The Principal’s Federation’s Liz Hawes said the organisation encouraged high turnout in the elections and went on to list a range of negative impacts that could come from a depressed turnout in a school trustee election.

These included lack of accountability, poor governance and a worsened delivery of educational services as well as extra power and responsibility wielded by a single person — that being the principal.

However, it’s not uncommon for a school to not have a trustee election because not enough candidates put their names forward to run.

In fact, according to the NZSTA, 1118 schools did not hold elections this year, as they didn’t receive enough candidate nominations to justify holding one.

In the organisation’s statement to Tearaway, the NZSTA’s Mike Wiles continued,

“Many boards of trustees have active succession planning in place, which means that there has been a lot of work behind the scenes during the preceding three years making sure that there are enough candidates for the incoming board”

“In these cases there is a zero turnout because a vote is not called. We regard that as a successful process”, Wills said.

So what’s next then?

For the past two years, all facets of the education system in New Zealand have been under a controversial review by the government-appointed Tomorrows School’s review, led by former NZQA Deputy CEO Bali Haque.

You can learn more about the final proposals made by the task force here, but in short, they take a few steps back from earlier draft recommendations released late last year, which had suggested stripping boards of most legal authority on schooling.

In the new tempered version, school boards will receive more training and will be, for the first time, bound to a code of conduct. However, they will continue to retain their rights to make school rules, suspend and expel students as well as manage staffing. 

However, students and parents will now also be able to appeal decisions made by school boards to an independent tribunal managed by a new agency under a redesigned Ministry of Education.

This comes after the draft recommendations opined that “many school boards do not have the capacity to do what is required of them [and it’s] very difficult for boards, as currently constituted, to represent their community”.

The final recommendations by the task force are intended to appease many vocal opponents to the draft recommendations, who said the reforms would remove community input into schooling.

Year 13 student Ben Fraser, who last year had petitioned the NZQA to add a student representative its board, said it was imperative that young people be more involved within the process.

“School boards have a significant influence over the experience of young people in our education system. Yet many students and parents barely know they exist or what they do.

It’s remarkable that even elections for student representatives on these Boards have higher turnout.

We need to empower young people to have more of a voice in deciding their future, especially in any reforms”, Fraser continued

The proposed changes to school boards will be implemented in the long term, around five to ten years, according to the government.

JUSTIN HU still can’t legally drink or vote but can legally OIA. Outgoing editor of The Collegian