This much is clear: if there are any polls that change locations in Peabody, it won't be to supermarkets. Local election officials have now suggested some alternative sites to city schools -- either nearby churches or temples.
The School Committee, citing a variety of safety concerns for students and disruption to the school day, wanted to look at possibly removing polling sites from city schools and consider alternative locations, such as the senior center, churches and supermarkets. There are currently 10 of the city's 19 precincts located in seven schools.
Committee member Brandi Carpenter raised the issue again this summer and pointed to Worcester as an example.
The city has moved many of its polls to supermarkets. Carpenter argued Worcester and other cities made changes out of concerns for student safety and convenience for voters and it appeared to be working.
Carpenter's concerns were echoed by parents, teachers and elementary school principals. The only school board member who opposed the effort was Beverley Griffin Dunne, who said changes could be made in how the public accesses the schools on Election Day instead.
Dunne also noted schools, as municipal buildings, are easier and more accessible to use as polling sites. That point of view is shared by local election officials.
Former City Clerk Natalie Maga even sounded off on the subject this summer via a letter to the editor entitled: "Don't ban voting in schools!"
The Peabody Board of Registrars, of which current City Clerk Tim Spanos is a member, has now submitted a detailed response to the School Committee as well as an assessment of each precinct and the viability of relocating sites.
The board's overall stance is that it's impractical to relocate all the precincts, but some changes could be made.
According to board chair Judith Blodgett, moving all 10 sites would affect more than 18,000 voters and cost up to $10,000. In a typical election year, the school gymnasiums are only tied up for one day and the schools have a greater police presence than at any other time during the school year.
Blodgett outlined the framework under which polling sites are selected and reviewed, which considers location, convenience to voters, handicap accessibility, safety, parking, long-term use, cost, efficiency, etc.
She noted the board does not support utilizing private, for-profit facilities that would just give those businesses more customers in the form of voters and that the board regularly assesses polling sites for all of the aforementioned concerns.
"After considering the above factors, the board feels that a relocation effort of this magnitude is an impractical solution to the safety concerns raised by the School Committee. Rather, a more reasonable solution is to consider a modified relocation plan accompanied by an assessment of the remaining polling locations in question, to develop a targeted action plan that will provide assurance that students and staff are safe," wrote Blodgett.
She then outlined a handful of possible changes:
- Ward 4 Precinct 3 -- Move from Peabody Veterans Memorial High School to Temple Beth Shalom if the temple is amenable to hosting a voting precinct
- Ward 5 Precinct 1 -- Move from Kiley School to Temple Ner Tamid, if the Temple is amenable to hosting a precinct
- Ward 5 Precinct 3 -- Move from McCarthy School to either the Kiley School (if 5-1 moves to Temple Ner Tamid) or West Congregational Church, if the church is amenable to hosting a voting precinct
- Ward 6 Precinct 1 -- Move from West Memorial School to either West Congregational Church or to the Community Covenant Church, if the churches are amenable to hosting a voting precinct
Blodgett noted the board worked with school administrators and committee members in 2009 to address safety concerns and a made a number of changes for signage and traffic flow. Classes were also canceled on Election Day and a professional development day was scheduled instead. She said that's an option for the September primary as well.
This past election cycle was a notable exception with four special elections (primaries and finals) earlier this year, but in a regular year, only the September primary sends voters to the schools while classes are in session.
"We respectfully ask the School Committee to re-evaluate their position on this matter, and consider a more balanced solution that would satisfy the greatest number of people," Blodgett wrote.
"Just as we respect the School Committee for wanting to provide the safest environment for all students and staff, we would hope that the School Committee respects the position of the board for wanting to provide an equally safe and fair voting environment for all citizens of the city," she said.
Another recourse left to the School Committee, if it wishes to pursue it, is to simply deny access to the schools for voting purposes. Committee members indicated they didn't want to force the issue that way, but City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski did confirm for the board that was an option.
Even so, the final decision to move a polling site is up to the City Council. The registrars only make suggestions to the council, which then votes yea or nay.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who chairs the School Committee, had suggested all three city boards sit down together to discuss the issue, but that hasn't happened yet.
The registrars' letter has been sent to the School Committee for discussion and is scheduled to be taken up at Tuesday's meeting.
These are the current 10 precincts at seven schools:
- Welch School, 50 Swampscott Ave., Precinct 2-1, 2-2
- South School, 16 Maple St., Precinct 2-3
- Higgins Middle School, 1 King Street Ext., Precincts 4-1, 4-2
- Peabody High School, 485 Lowell St., Precinct 4-3
- McCarthy School, 76 Lake St., Precinct 5-3
- West School, 15 Bow St., Precinct 6-1
- Burke School, 127 Birch St., Precincts 6-2, 6-3