Extra-busy election cycle could await city
July 24 School Committee referendum might lead to another race, more candidates for voters to consider
WOONSOCKET — It’s confusing enough keeping track of all the candidates for elective office, but this season a referendum question on restoring the School Committee as an elective body will demand even more attention of voters who want to make sure they show up at the ballot box on time – especially if it’s approved.
Candidates for elective office, including state lawmakers, mayor and City Council, have already filed formal papers announcing their intentions, setting up one calendar of events that culminates in the general election on Nov. 6.
If approved, however, the referendum on the School Committee, set for July 24, will establish a different track for candidates for those seats – the first since 2011, before voters approved a switch to the existing system of seating members of the board by appointment.
The City Council approved the referendum weeks ago after repeated attempts to fill all five seats on the School Committee under the existing requirements of the City Charter failed. The bylaws currently call for the chief executive to appoint members of the panel, with the approval of the City Council. But after the two-year terms of School Committee Vice Chairman Donald Burke and Committeewoman Susan Pawlina expired last year, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and a majority of the City Council have been able to agree on filling only one of them.
A major sticking point involved Burke’s successor. A veteran Massachusetts educator, Burke enjoyed the support of fellow School Committee members, parents and administrators in the Woonsocket Education Department, but when members of the City Council insisted that he be reappointed, Baldelli-Hunt refused, leaving the vacancy in stalemate.
Ultimately, the council responded by calling for the July 24 referendum, in which voters are being asked to resurrect the elective system of choosing members that, just six years ago, in an earlier referendum, they chose to shoot down. At the time, municipal finances were in chaos and a state Budget Commission was in place to prevent the city from lapsing
into bankruptcy – a situation that was blamed on a lack of fiscal oversight in the WED.
The switch made Woonsocket the only other city in the state, besides Providence, with a wholly appointive school committee. North Smithfield operates with a hybrid, including five elected members, and two appointees, one selected by the town manager, the other by the Town Council.
The question now before voters is this:
“Shall the City of Woonsocket Home Rule Charter, Chapter XIV, entitled, ‘Department of Education,’ be amended to provide for a five-person school committee of which members are to be elected by the qualified electors of the City for a term of two years, or until a successor is duly appointed?”
If voters reject the proposition, the rest of the election cycle will play out in routine fashion. Assuming all the declarants successfully return nomination papers – the ballot isn’t due to be certified until late next week – there will be a three-way primary to peel off one of the contenders for mayor before the general election in November. Businessman Albert Beauparlant and Albert G. Brien, a former state lawmaker and City Council president, have both taken out papers to challenge Baldelli-Hunt, who is seeking her third term.
Fourteen candidates for City Council have also taken out papers, including most of the incumbents. There are also several contested races for state representative and state senator in districts that cover Woonsocket.
If the referendum is approved, however, the result will make for a very busy sequence of events at the polls that will require much more voter participation than usual. Anyone thinking of running for School Committee will have to stay on his or her toes as well.
While all the other general election candidates are already in the queue, the intake process will have to begin all over again to kick-start the certification of candidates for School Committee. First – just as everyone else seeking public office must – they’ll have to file declaration papers.
Board of Canvassers Manager Estelle Corriveau says that under legislation approved by the City Council, two days have been set aside for prospective candidates to do so – Aug. 22-23.
The Board of Canvassers is scheduled to meet on July 16 to certify the ballot for all the other candidates – too soon to accommodate prospective school candidates should the referendum pass. School board hopefuls will have to collect signatures for nomination papers and be certified later.
With five potential vacancies, up to 10 candidates could be certified for School Committee without a primary. But what happens if there are more? That means the city will have to hold a freestanding primary to whittle down the field. If necessary, the primary for school officials will be held on Oct. 2 – almost three weeks after an expected primary for mayor, on Sept. 13.
Cognizant of the challenges the packed election cycle might pose, the City Council approved a stepped-up campaign of media advertising for the referendum to make sure voters are up to speed. The council ordered a series of advertisements beginning three weeks prior to the referendum in all the usual locales, including The Call, the Valley Breeze and radio stations WOON and WNRI, according to Corriveau.
It isn’t until after the possible October primary that the two election tracks dovetail again for all the candidates, including those looking to land a spot on the School Committee. Though Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is calling it a “special” election for the candidates for School Committee, they will appear on the same general election ballot as all others, on Nov. 6 – assuming the referendum passes on July 24.
Potentially, that means voters could go to the polls four times between July 24 and Election Day – twice the usual number of visits in a standard election year with a primary.
Corriveau said all of the city’ s polling places – that’s a dozen – will be open for referendum. Each time the city opens the polls, it costs about $16,500 for hiring temporary workers to staff the locations.