By Bob Uphues
A Riverside resident who is a state official and the village's police chief have thrown their support behind legislation that has Cook County Clerk David Orr banging his head against a wall.
On Tuesday, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel announced their support for a new law that would prohibit polling places from being located inside public and private schools.
The law, sponsored by north suburban state Rep. Jack Franks (D-63rd), is being pushed as a student safety measure.
"There is no reason to have members of the public strolling through school parking lots and entering buildings where classes are being held," said Topinka in a press release issued March 5, the day she and Franks held a press conference in Springfield announcing the legislation.
"There are government buildings, churches and other polling place locations that do not put students at risk or disrupt the school day," Topinka said. "Let's utilize them instead."
Every elementary school in North Riverside, Riverside and Brookfield — with the exception of Central School and St. Mary School in Riverside and St. Paul School in Brookfield — is used as a polling place.
Orr, who is responsible for finding and staffing polling places in Chicago's suburbs, says such legislation would create a logistical nightmare. Schools account for 36 percent of polling places in the suburbs, he said.
Schools are not only convenient for voters, they typically provide plenty of parking and accessibility that other places, such as businesses, might not be able to provide.
His solution? Have the schools make sure students are not in session on Election Day.
"A better way is to request schools that are concerned about safety to schedule either closing the school or scheduling an institute day," Orr said in an interview with the Landmark last week.
Orr said 123 suburban Cook County schools already have chosen that route. The Clerk's Office makes the dates of elections known years in advance, he said. School superintendents have plenty of opportunity to adjust the school schedule.
"This is a viable option if they plan ahead," Orr said.
Weitzel, meanwhile, gained the support of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police for the proposed legislation.
"When people enter schools, especially older schools, they have access to the whole school," said Weitzel, who added local chiefs are already being asked to provide police officers are school polling places because of safety concerns. "These schools are wide open."
One of those is Komarek School in North Riverside. While the building is sometimes closed on Election Day, it's not always possible to do that, said District 94 Superintendent Neil Pellicci.
On April 9, for example, school will be in session as residents head to the school to vote in local elections. The school erects barricades in the hallway and has had police onsite in the past, but Pellicci would prefer the polling place be moved someplace else.
Several years ago, he wrote a letter to Orr requesting that Komarek be removed as a polling place. That request was denied, he said. Meanwhile, Mater Christi School — located just blocks away and shuttered by the Chicago Archdiocese in 2005 — sits unused on Election Day.
Brookfield-LaGrange District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said it's not necessarily as easy as looking at the calendar and locking in institute days. The district has just two institute days it can shuffle around during the school year.
"The problem is it locks that into the polling day and limits what you can do," said Kuzniewski.
Pellicci said that this year, all of the schools feeding into Riverside-Brookfield High School have scheduled a joint institute day. Election Day wasn't convenient for everyone, he said, so this year school will be in session on Election Day.
District 95 has made the decision to close S.E. Gross School on Election Day.
"From a safety standpoint, we've chosen not to be in session those days," Kuzniewski said. "We use it as an institute day."
Orr said one solution could be to move non-federal elections to another day, such as Saturday. Not only would it be more convenient for working people, he said, it would probably expand the pool of people who would like to serve as election judges and administrators.
"In the long run, I'm a big advocate of voting on weekends," Orr said. It's something we might want to consider."
It's not that he is dismissing school safety, said Orr. He wants to make voting convenient and accessible to as many people as possible.
"I want to protect children," he said, "but I also want to protect democracy. No one's looking for conflicts here."