By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Voters of Peabody, we need to have a talk. About us.
That’s the message the School Committee is sending to city officials, including the Board of Registrars, regarding the longtime Election Day practice of setting up ballot boxes and voting booths in schools across the city. It comes now in the wake of a legal opinion from City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski that board members believe may give them the authority to ban voting in the schools.
Even so, at Tuesday’s meeting School Committee member Ed Charest offered a caution after the board agreed to seek a meeting with the registrars and city councilors. “It’s a discussion. ... It’s not a threat,” he said.
Colleague Dave McGeney added that there is no intention to “ram it down the city’s throat. ... We know what we want, and how we get there we need to discuss.”
Member Brandi Carpenter raised the issue initially at a meeting in May, citing the difficulties that voting in the schools presents for the administration. Safety is a major consideration, she said, noting the increased traffic on Election Day and the fact that unknown adults are entering the buildings.
Carpenter cited events such as the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings as increasing the need for security. And she noted that cities such as Worcester have been successful in setting up voting booths in supermarkets, where people are likely to be anyway and where the owners are only too happy to draw crowds.
City Clerk Tim Spanos has raised objections, however, suggesting that the change will inconvenience voters — the very taxpayers who pay for the schools — and the changeover would be difficult and needlessly expensive.
Asked whether the school board has the authority to ban voting in schools, Smerczynski said the answer is, “generally speaking, yes.”
The state, he explained, gives the superintendent charge of school buildings “unless the town otherwise directs.” Peabody’s charter directs that the School Committee “shall have the control of all school buildings and of the grounds,” he pointed out.
Only one member of the School Committee, Beverley Griffin Dunne, voted against the original proposal to consider the removal of the voting booths.
It was Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who is chairman of the School Committee, who suggested the joint meeting with the registrars and the council. When that happens is yet to be worked out, and a swift resolution is unlikely because of a lighter summer schedule. Also, Spanos is temporarily unavailable following knee surgery.
Bettencourt characterized the proposed meeting as an opportunity “to bring all the decision-makers together.”