Could Schools Become Voter-Free Zones?

Amid student safety concerns, MPS cancels Election Day classes as many suburbs move polling places out of schools.

Just as high school students are organizing a mass political movement, a growing number of communities are deciding that voting and studying don’t mix.

Reacting to the same school shootings that have driven teenagers into the streets and into the headlines, Milwaukee Public Schools will join the Elmbrook and Greendale school districts in canceling classes on election days. Wauwatosa, Oak Creek and Kenosha all have moved their polling places out of schools for security reasons, and the Glendale Common Council could follow suit on Monday night. 

In Milwaukee, removing polling places from schools would have been complicated, says Neal Albrecht, executive director of the City Election Commission. Exactly half of the city’s 182 polling places are in city schools, not counting another nine in MPS buildings not used for classes, such as playground field houses. State law encourages polling places in publicly owned facilities, and “we have areas of the city where the only public spaces are schools,” Albrecht says.

Taking all polling places out of schools could discourage voter turnout, Albrecht says, noting that many people, especially seniors who no longer drive, walk to the polls. Such a move “would be more damaging to the city of Milwaukee than to Wauwatosa,” which only had to find a handful of alternative locations, Albrecht says.  

MPS officials hesitate to call off classes, because they know that finding alternative child care can be challenging for financially strapped parents, school district spokesman Andy Nelson says.  But that choice is the most cost-effective, reducing security costs and easing parking concerns while maintaining access for voters, Albrecht says.

A few of Milwaukee’s “early-start” middle schools and high schools will be open for the Aug. 14 partisan primary. Otherwise, MPS has scheduled professional development or teacher record days — meaning teachers will be present, but students won’t – for the Nov. 6 general election; the Feb. 19, 2019, nonpartisan primary; and the April 2, 2019, nonpartisan general election. Elmbrook and Greendale had already decided to do the same.

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In Glendale, three of its six polling places are in schools. But in Parkway School and Glen Hills Middle School, “they have become very disruptive to the normal school day, and also are a safety concern due to the fact of having open access to school children during the day,” Glendale-River Hills Schools Superintendent Larry Smalley wrote in a letter to Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy and City Administrator Rachel Reiss. Nicolet High School has voiced similar concerns, Kennedy said in a posting on the social media site Nextdoor.

Reiss initially recommended consolidating all voting at the former Good Hope School, where Smalley said the school district could safely separate voters from day care and parochial school tenants. But after residents and aldermen criticized that idea, Reiss is now suggesting the city keep three polling places: City Hall, Good Hope School and Cardinal Stritch University, which would replace the North Shore Library. However, the County Election Commission has recommended delaying any change until the 2019 spring election, to avoid voter confusion this fall, Reiss said in a memo to aldermen.

State law requires polling places to be set no less than 60 days before an election, meaning this week is the last chance to change anything before the Aug. 14 primary.

This isn’t an issue everywhere in the Milwaukee area. Some smaller communities, such as River Hills and Elm Grove, already consolidate voting at a single location outside the schools, such as the village hall. Several others, such as Whitefish Bay and Franklin, have multiple polling places but don’t use schools.




Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.