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Texas school officials nervous about campuses as polling places after Uvalde

Some district leaders are pushing for changes to the state election code

Anxiety over school shootings is prompting district officials to reconsider how they balance security with voter access during election season.

Shortly after the Uvalde massacre, a Dallas school trustee walked into his son’s campus for a kindergarten promotion ceremony and noticed many strangers.

In addition to being the day Texas witnessed its deadliest school shooting, May 24 — a Tuesday — was the day of a primary runoff election. Crowds of voters cast their ballots for high-profile statewide candidates at elementary, middle and high schools across the state that day.

“To walk in there … it’s just a very eerie feeling to see people you don’t know,” DISD trustee Justin Henry said. “It’s not a good situation.”

The recent shooting at Robb Elementary renewed debate over whether Texas schools should be open for students when they are being used as polling places — or whether they should be required to host voters at all.

DISD trustees are expected to decide later this month whether or not to cancel classes on Nov. 8, when huge numbers of voters will stream onto campuses to cast votes for governor and other major positions.

Several other districts already took similar steps, scheduling that Tuesday as a staff workday. Many plan to remain open as usual that day.

DISD trustees debated the issue at a Thursday board briefing.

Trustee Dustin Marshall questioned if it was possible to remove schools from being considered as polling sites, acknowledging legitimate concerns about how such a move could impact voter turnout.

That idea is currently rendered moot by state law. The Texas Election Code requires that public buildings, including campuses, be made available for use as a polling place. A district can’t prohibit the use of a school as a voting location.

Trustee Joyce Foreman said limiting campus sites would impact voters who don’t have reliable transportation as many often walk to their neighborhood school to cast their ballot.

“We have to be really careful with disenfranchising voters,” Foreman said.

In many ways, schools make ideal polling places: They have wheel-chair accessible entrances, large parking lots and spacious areas — like gyms or cafeterias — for voters to line up.

“Every county in the state relies upon schools as voting sites to a heavy degree,” Dallas County Elections Administrator Michael Scarpello said.

Richardson ISD trustees earlier this summer approved a resolution calling for the Legislature to modify state law related to the use of schools as polling locations.

“The modification will eliminate the possible risk of an active shooter or other violence to school children, teachers or staff as a result of the school building being open to the public and utilized as a polling place without the ability to implement customary safety protocols while children are in school,” the resolution reads.

Liz Morse, RISD’s government affairs chief, said she is working to get legislators interested in potential changes. The district is proposing a few options, including moving state election days from Tuesday to Saturday. The federal November election day — always on a Tuesday — would remain unchanged under such a plan.

Currently, state law mandates the general primary election to the first Tuesday in March in each even-numbered year and the runoff primary election date is the fourth Tuesday in May following the general primary.

Other potential fixes, Morse said, could include making it optional for campuses to be a polling place or enabling schools to close on election days without any attendance-related penalty from the state.

“We want the option to say, ‘No, thank you,’ to the county,” she said.

But there are drawbacks to that, Morse conceded, because “just taking a random Tuesday off doesn’t feel right from an education perspective.”

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen also recently raised the issue, according to the San Antonio Express-News. She said security concerns have intensified, though schools make up more than two-thirds of Election Day polling places.

“Guess what? They don’t want us, and we understand that after Uvalde,” Callanen said last month.

County Judge Clay Jenkins said he’s talked with local school officials about safety concerns, including the longer period of early voting days.

The county could manage without K-12 buildings as early voting sites, he said, though he noted Dallas College campuses remain important voting places.

Dallas County mostly relies on recreation centers and libraries for early voting, Scarpello said.

While school shootings remain relatively rare, Republican lawmakers have emphasized “hardening” campuses as a way to prevent more of them.

In Richardson, on the day of the Uvalde shooting, roughly 30 schools were used as voting sites. Officials quickly heard from many concerned parents, who pointed out that voters aren’t subjected to the same security checks as school visitors on any other day.

“Schools cannot continue to be an option for voting. I realize the majority of voting takes place when students aren’t there, but one day is one too many,” one woman emailed the superintendent. “The day of the Uvalde school shooting, our door was propped open all day for voters to enter. A kind volunteer reading a book to monitor the hallway is no match for someone with a gun.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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